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As Texas Universities Send Students Home For The Holidays, Few Are Requiring COVID-19 Precautions

Siblings Thomas and Shelby pose together on the balcony of their apartment.
Eddie Gaspar
The Texas Tribune
From left, Thomas Hobohm, and his sister Shelby, have been quarantining at their West Campus apartment near the University of Texas at Austin for two weeks to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Shortly after, they plan on visiting their family for Thanksgiving in North Texas. Nov. 14, 2020.

Shelby Hobohm and her younger brother Thomas haven’t left their Austin apartment in a week.

The two university students are halfway through a 14-day quarantine that their mother required of them before they could join the rest of the family back home in North Texas for Thanksgiving. They’ve both been extra cautious since the pandemic began, especially since one of their younger brothers has asthma.

So the two loaded up on groceries and stopped ordering take out. They avoid parties and crowds. But as thousands of students prepare to spread out across the state and head home for the holidays, Hobohm said she’s worried she doesn’t see her peers taking the same precautions.

“Some students aren’t going to do anything and they’ve been partying and [they’ll] go straight home and expose their families and probably communities to it,” she told The Texas Tribune via Zoom, adding that she still sees University of Texas at Austin students partying right outside her West Campus apartment window. “It's kind of sad.”

Most major universities in Texas are shifting the rest of the fall semester online after Thanksgiving so students avoid traveling back and forth, limiting exposure of the virus.

But few of those universities — some of which have been identified as coronavirus hot spots — have explicitly encouraged students to quarantine for 14 days before Thanksgiving or required exit testing, despite staggering rises in case counts across the state and country.

“It’s going to be the unfortunate stars aligning with temperatures cooling down, people staying indoors, people getting together more. Obviously students traveling and people in general traveling will just add to that,” said Diana Cervantes, director of the epidemiology program at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.

Over the past week, some universities have encouraged students to continue to wear masks, avoid large gatherings and to get tested ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday. They advise students to schedule the test so they get results before they leave.

But across the country, some schools have taken a stricter approach. The State University of New York System and Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana are both requiring students who were on campus to test negative before being permitted to travel home for the holiday break.

Officials at UT-Austin and elsewhere in Texas say they are relying on students to voluntarily comply with safety measures. Many said they’re proud of how students handled COVID-19 protocols this fall.

“We can always point to a party that shouldn’t have happened,” said Art Markman, a UT-Austin professor who is leading the university’s academic work group for COVID-19 planning. “But the big story is 18-to-22-year-olds stepped up to do what was needed to do.”

Leading into the holiday season, the Austin area has seen a significant increase in cases over the past two weeks, largely among adults between 20 to 39 years old, according to Austin Public Health.

Other universities have also seen spikes on campus over the past few weeks.

Texas Tech University in Lubbock has seen cases on campus more than double in the past two weeks. Lubbock is among the state's worst coronavirus hot spots with hospitalizations climbing. In a letter to students on Nov. 6, school officials encouraged students to get flu shots and COVID-19 tests before the holiday. The university said it will remain open on Sunday, Nov. 22nd to accommodate students who want to get tested before they leave campus. Students who test positive will be able to stay on campus throughout the holiday.

Texas A&M University in College Station has also seen cases spike on campus since Halloween. Last week, school leaders strongly encouraged students to get tested and discouraged guests from visiting campus housing. They also started to require approval for on campus gatherings over 10 people as of last Wednesday.

Baylor University is also urging students to take advantage of free rapid testing before leaving for the Thanksgiving break. In a letter to students Thursday, university leaders expressed concern about rising cases across the state.

“This is the feared ‘second spike’ that so many medical experts predicted at the onset of the pandemic as the weather turns cooler and people spend more time indoors,” Baylor president Linda Livingstone wrote to students.

In another letter to students Friday, officials encouraged students to develop a safe travel plan and get a flu shot.

Rice University in Houston is one of few universities in the state that mandates weekly testing among students, which officials say will continue until the end of the semester. Every student is required to share their holiday plans with the university and whether that will include travel.

“Our expectation is that if you choose to travel for Thanksgiving, even if that travel is a relatively short distance away, that you will not return to campus until the start of the spring semester,” Bridget Gorman, dean of undergraduate students at Rice, wrote to students in late October. “Please do not return to Rice ‘just because’; if you travel home, remain there.”

Earlier this month, the University of North Texas started automatically entering students who get tested on campus for weekly raffle prizes such as $500 scholarships and Apple Airpods until the end of the semester. UT-Austin has also offered incentives throughout the semester.

Multiple university officials said mandates aren’t always the most effective way to reach students and get them to comply.

“An overly punitive approach will just discourage students from reporting or hide the fact they have COVID or were exposed to COVID,” said Jennifer Cowley, UNT provost. “It's a delicate balancing act in how do we create the right incentive about being open and transparent about what’s going on in the community and encourage students, faculty and staff to engage in safe behaviors.”

At least one school, Prairie View A&M University, asked students in early November to partially isolate for 14 days prior to Thanksgiving and only leave their residences for class or to grab to-go meals from the dining hall.

But Markman, at the Austin flagship university, said asking thousands of students to quarantine for 14-days is unfeasible.

“Making an unrealistic demand of students does not lead to compliance,” he said. “We want to figure out what we can do...that's in the realm of possibility for students that will keep people as safe as possible.”

Health experts caution against relying on just testing as it can give students and others a false sense of security. Students could get tested too early in the progression of the disease or get a negative test and then become exposed afterwards if they travel home via plane or other public transportation.

The Hobohm siblings decided quarantining was a safer bet than getting tested, where they feared they might expose themselves to the virus unintentionally. They’ll return to Austin the weekend after Thanksgiving for a few weeks before heading home for winter break because there isn’t enough room at their mom’s house to fit all of their siblings.

“We’ll have four or five normal days,” Shelby Hobohm said. “Then, we’re quarantining again to go home for Christmas.”

Disclosure: Baylor University, Prairie View A&M University, Rice University, Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University, University of Texas at Austin and University of North Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This story was originally published by The Texas Tribune.

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