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College Students Weigh Safety and Sanity in Thanksgiving Travel Plans

Students wearing masks.
Nenad Stovjev / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Many universities are strongly discouraging students from traveling to and from campuses for the holiday to curb the spread of COVID-19.
  • Students are shifting their Thanksgiving plans due to concerns about the risk of traveling.
  • Worries about being unable to return to school in the new year due to possible quarantines are factoring into students’ decisions about whether to leave.

If this were a typical year, Logan Press, a senior at Washington University in St. Louis, would be spending Thanksgiving sharing a meal with his family. This year, however, on Thanksgiving Day he’ll mask up and brave a flight back to his home near Seattle, Washington. When he arrives, he’ll skip the turkey and self-isolate in his bedroom until he receives a negative COVID-19 test result. 

“For the first time, my family has no plans,” Press tells Verywell. 

He decided to travel on Thanksgiving Day to avoid congested airports and crowded plane rides on the days before and after. Missing out on his typical Thanksgiving festivities is the price Press says he is willing to pay for a safe travel experience. 

“For me it was about being able to isolate and get well or get a negative test in time for the holiday season at home,” he says.

Thanksgiving in the U.S. has long been associated with gatherings of family and loved ones. And Thanksgiving weekend is a notoriously busy time for travelers. More than 55 million people traveled in the U.S. between November 27 and December 1 in 2019, reports Statista. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to stir personal safety concerns and force travel restrictions and quarantine mandates, many Americans are re-thinking how they will gather this year.

For college students who have had to navigate changing academic calendars and living situations over the past seven months, the decision can be especially complicated. The trip home may require a plane ride or long drive—both of which present safety concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2016 alone, more than 60,000 residents of the five most populous U.S. states left their home state to attend four-year colleges, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Though universities across the country have recommended, or required, students to stay home, those who chose to remain close to campus face the difficult decision of whether and how to travel for the holiday.

What This Means For You

If you or a family member are a college student planning to travel for the Thanksgiving holiday, check the guidelines for your school and the county health department for your destination. Wear a mask and stay physically distant from others when traveling, and make a plan to self-isolate or get tested once you arrive.

How Universities Create and Communicate Plans

Wary of the threat posed by students dispersing for the holidays and reuniting after January, many universities seek to discourage travel to and from campus. Throughout the summer, administrators shifted academic calendars, opting to start classes early in order to pack in as much in-person instruction time as possible before November 25. 

At Washington University, where some classes are taught in-person, students began school later than usual, in order to allow for staggered start dates for individual schools. In January, they’ll have to take their finals remotely. Students are “strongly encouraged” not to return to campus if they choose to leave, per a university email, though there is no system in place to monitor student travel.

“I think it would help if they had one clear message and stuck with it,” Press says. “Because there are so many uncertainties with COVID-19, it’s been hard for them to stick with one plan.”

In March, Press voiced concern about the university’s response to students planning to travel domestically for spring break in an op-ed in the student newspaper, Student Life. Since March, he says, school administrators have been better about communicating with students.

Choosing to travel

Two weeks before orientation was set to begin at the University of Puget Sound in Washington, administrators announced campus housing would close for the fall, with some exceptions. Sam Webb, a sophomore there, chose to live off-campus with some friends in Tacoma, Washington, where the school is located. 

The move gave her some space from her middle school-aged siblings. But three months, she says, is a long time to go without seeing her family and friends.

She hopes to travel home to Colorado for the week of Thanksgiving and return in December to finish out the semester. The decision to leave, she says, depends on whether the state of Washington will continue to allow her to re-enter without quarantining and the permission of her mother, who is at high risk for contracting COVID-19. 

Assuming she has the all-clear, she must decide how to travel across the Rocky Mountains to her home in Colorado.

“I’d probably feel safer driving in terms of [COVID-19], but taking a plane is definitely safer in terms of driving,” Webb tells Verywell. “It’s going to be really icy and stormy no matter which route I take.”

When universities shut their campuses down in March as the virus started to spread widely in the U.S., some students, like Webb, were stranded at home without the ability to retrieve belongings from campus residences. Many were told to pack up their belongings and exit the student forms with just a few days notice

Learning from her experience leaving Tacoma in the spring, Webb says she plans to bring many of her belongings home with her over Thanksgiving break out of concern that travel restrictions will change, forcing her to stay in Colorado with only a week’s worth of items.  

Niki Amir, a senior at Northwestern University in Illinois originally from Abu Dhabi in the UAE, has no choice but to fly if returning home for the holidays. Like many international students who returned to the states for the fall term, she must keep track of travel rules in her home country and the U.S. 

Northwestern will conclude face-to-face instruction before Thanksgiving and hold finals during the first week of December. This timeline allows Amir ample time to quarantine at home, or when she returns to the U.S. after the holidays, if necessary.

Though passing through busy airports and sitting for long flights can be risky during the pandemic, Amir considers the trip to be worthwhile. 

“[The risk of flying] is not going to stop me from going home, because home is my favorite,” Amir tells Verywell. “And seeing my friends at home is so much safer than seeing my friends here, to be honest.”

For most of the summer, Emirate residents needed permission from the government to enter or exit the country. There are far fewer travel restrictions now, and the U.S. has no mandated quarantine system or travel limitations for Emirates. 

Bars, restaurants, and gyms opened in Abu Dhabi before restrictions on those spaces began to ease in Illinois, where Northwestern is located. The social pressure to wear a mask and access to fast and reliable testing is much greater there, too, she says.

“Everything you hear about what’s happening in the U.S. doesn’t give you much faith that you’re going to be able to get tested,” Amir says. “When I was flying over, that was one of my main concerns. I was trying to Google and texting my friends who were here like, ‘How can I get a test? How easy is it to get tested?’”

Northwestern offers weekly testing to all students. Though Amir acknowledges there are shortcomings in the university’s contact tracing and testing systems, she says she’s grateful for the peace of mind regular testing affords her and her roommates.

Being Home

Having been thrust into virtual learning during the spring, some students are concerned about what may happen if they are unable to return to campus or their college town after the holidays and need to begin their next term from home. 

Webb, who typically enjoys spending time with her family, says that living at home during the spring was challenging. Doing schoolwork in the same household as her younger siblings can be difficult, and she prefers to spend higher quality time with her family. 

“I think what made me not appreciate being home in the spring, even though I was with my family, was the unwelcome rapid change that entailed,” she says. “I wanted to do family things at home, not school things.”

Because his classes are not scheduled to resume until mid-January, Press expects to be home for more than six weeks. He expresses “mixed” feelings about the situation.

“For me, it’s always nice to be home but I will definitely miss St. Louis when I leave,” Press says. “It’s just the only really feasible thing I can do.”

For Amir, the 15-hour time difference made it difficult to connect to her classes in the spring, so she hopes to be able to return to the Midwest after the holidays.

Though she didn’t grow up celebrating Thanksgiving, which is largely an American holiday, in the past, Amir celebrated with family members who live in Chicago. While she feels relatively detached from the holiday, for her it signals the beginning of the winter holiday season. This year, she hopes to enjoy the festivities all the same when she flies back home for Thanksgiving and remains through January, while balancing the worries and pressures stemming from the pandemic.

“It’s my favorite time of year at home because it’s 110 degrees for most of the year, so December is gorgeous,” Amir says. “But now it’s kind of like ‘yes but I have to take a flight and I don’t want to get my mom sick.’ You just can’t not think about those things.”

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  1. Statista. Number of Thanksgiving holiday travelers in the United States from 2005 to 2019. Updated November 21, 2019.

  2. United States Department of Education. Digest of Education Statistics 2016. Updated February 2018.

  3. Press L. Op-ed: An overlooked risk factor in the spread of coronavirus: domestic travel. Student Life. Updated March 4, 2020.

  4. University of Puget Sound. Your guide to fall 2020.

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