In the time of COVID-19: How college students can return home safely for the holidays

Physicians recommend families take precautions to protect against COVID-19.
November 15th, 2020
Merrill Rollhaus, left, and a friend on campus. Photo courtesy of Merrill Rollhaus.

Before Merrill Rollhaus heads to class or to lacrosse practice, she grabs a mask from the colorful stash hanging on the wall right next to her dorm room door. She has no allegiance to one but chooses from a menagerie of color: the tie-dye, bright red, blue plain surgical mask, the sparkly turquoise or shimmery mint green one depending on her mood.

Menagerie of masks. Photo courtesy of Merrill Rollhaus.

“Why not have a little fun with it,” said Rollhaus, a freshman at Denison University outside Columbus, Ohio, where strict regulations have mostly kept the coronavirus at bay. From day one, the small, liberal arts college instituted random testing, temperature checks and serious consequences for offenders. So wearing a mask pretty much all the time doesn’t faze Rollhaus. It’s so commonplace, when she and her roommates watch a movie, maskless actors look out of place.

“We are like, ‘why aren’t they wearing masks?’” said Rollhaus, a 2020 Colorado Academy graduate.

Rollhaus is coming home for an extended holiday break that will last from Thanksgiving to well beyond New Year’s. And like everything else in 2020, it won’t be a simple homecoming. Her mom, Catherine, is setting up Merrill’s room so when her daughter comes home, she can go right into quarantine.

“We’re going to be super careful,” said Catherine.

Denison is also providing students with a COVID-19 test that they can take when they arrive at home. Once Rollhaus arrives, she’ll take the test, mail it off, and hope for a negative result. In the meantime, she’ll hang out in her room or if the weather is nice, outside.

“It will be hard but this is the way it is,” said Catherine.

Dr. Kartik Patel.

She’ll make quarantine less painful in creative ways – notes, treats and flowers outside her door.

Despite steps like these, Dr. Kartik Patel, an internal medicine physician with UCHealth, warns parents not to rely exclusively on the take-home tests.

“None of the tests are 100%,” said Patel. “There are a lot of false-negative and positive results.”

Instead, he recommends kids quarantine and monitor for any COVID-19 symptoms for two weeks. As for spending time with old high school pals, Patel once again urges caution. Many are returning from states where mask, social distance and other preventative policies are lax.

Other tips:

    • Get a flu shot.
    • Minimize interactions while traveling.
    • Consider driving, rather than flying.
    • Avoid restaurants and bars.
    • Don’t share food or drinks.

“Take advantage of technology,” said Patel. “If you just have to see someone, stay outside, mask up and stay socially distant.”

Dr. Larissa Pisney, medical director, infection prevention and control for UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital and UCHealth Metro Denver, works in the COVID-19 units regularly. Despite some advances in how providers treat the virus, it’s a devastating illness. No one should try and game the system by testing out of quarantine. A negative COVID-19 test, advises Pisney, cannot be used an as excuse for reckless behavior.

Dr. Larissa Pisney
Dr. Larissa Pisney

“Someone who is pre-symptomatic or gets tested too soon following an exposure may get a negative test result,” said Pisney who urges families to have frequent conversations about why it’s important to respect social distancing, follow a strict 14-day quarantine, limit big gatherings and wear masks. Some universities are even offering to house students over the holidays rather than contributing to a surge in cases by turning them loose. It’s something to consider, said Pisney.

“This holiday season will look differently,” said Pisney. “The risks are real for a lot of people.”

Mental health

Catherine and Merrill Rollhaus. Photo courtesy of Merrill Rollhaus.

Going off to college is challenging for vulnerable young adults under normal circumstances – homesickness, roommate challenges, and academic expectations to name a few. The pandemic, hours of exhausting online classes and isolation, not to mention the loss of what’s typically a social experience, has tested the mental health of many. Parents and adults should to keep a watchful eye for signs of stress, anxiety and depression.

“Check in with your kid regularly, turn off screens and focus on meaningful connections,” said Pisney.

“Pointedly asking about depression is ok and if there’s any hesitation or concern, get professional help.”

Catherine is thrilled her daughter is coming home, and thankful she’s had a relatively normal college experience with some in-person classes, an opportunity to play lacrosse and make new friends. A bonus is very few COVID cases on campus.

“The only way to be successful is to follow the rules,” said Catherine.

“I wish things were different,” said Merrill. “But I’ll make the best of it.”

About the author

Molly Blake is a communications specialist for UCHealth. She joined the team in 2019. Molly spent much of her journalism career freelance writing for various publications including The New York Times, NBC news, alumni magazines and more. She is the proud spouse of a United States Marine Corps veteran, and wrote extensively about their life in the military.