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Thanksgiving break is normally a time for college students to leave campus, return home and then come back to campus ready for the race to the end of the semester. However, much like everything this year, that plan has changed dramatically for many schools. As of the beginning of November, over 250,000 cases and 80 deaths from COVID-19 are attributed to college campuses. With the pandemic showing no signs of slowing down and no approved vaccine to-date, no normalcy is coming to higher ed for the foreseeable future. This has led many schools, including the University of South Carolina, Syracuse University and Emory University, to make the difficult decision to suspend in-person learning ahead of the holiday break. As many students face another extended period of time away from campus, it’s critical that higher ed leaders are prepared to support students with the services and resources needed for well-being and success.
In consideration for this long break, American College Health Association (ACHA), The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times and other higher-ed thought leaders are looking at how to keep campuses, students and families safe. As we head toward an extended time of students away from campus and an uncertain spring semester, here are the top four considerations for higher ed leaders.
1. Prepare campus health services.
Whether your campus closes or remains open after the Thanksgiving holiday, ACHA recommends that campuses be prepared to care for students who are unable to travel home. For students who either have COVID-19 or have been exposed to the virus, travel may be delayed and accommodations will need to be made for food and housing. Your college health services need a coordinated plan to check in on and care for these students. Additionally, students must have a plan for self-care while in isolation or quarantine, which can be created with help from a mental health care provider.
It is likely that more students will request COVID-19 testing prior to their exit from campus, or your campus may have requested students to be tested to help limit the spread of the virus. In either case, encourage students to have a “know before you go” approach to their holiday travel. Be sure students know how to get access to testing, whether through on-campus or off-campus resources.
While a negative test isn’t a guarantee, getting a test prior to departing campus is a way to help minimize spread of the virus. In an interview with The New York Times, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said, “… if you’re careful, you wear a mask and you test negative, you’ve diminished dramatically the likelihood there’s going to be a problem.”
Similarly, a plan for frequent, regular testing in the spring semester is an essential part of keeping students healthy and minimizing spread of COVID-19.
2. Promote student health and educational messaging.
Since travel is known to increase risk for spreading COVID-19, encourage students to be aware of the spread of COVID-19 on campus, the local community and where their travel is taking them during the Thanksgiving and extended winter break. A student’s current physical and mental health should also be a consideration for travel.
ACHA encourages higher ed leaders to ensure that students:
- Get influenza vaccinations to help lessen the impact of a potential “twindemic.”
- Review the regulations for travel at their holiday destinations, as some states require the completion of forms prior to arrival. There are also travel restrictions and testing requirements after arrival in various states. (Here’s where you can check each state’s restrictions.)
- Minimize risk of exposure to COVID-19 prior to departing campus, which will help reduce disruption of travel plans. If a student is ill, infected or recently exposed to COVID-19, they will not be allowed to board airplanes and trains.
- Reduce interactions with people outside the immediate household or residence hall roommates prior to departing campus. This will help reduce the possibility of infection or exposure to infection.
3. Communicate clearly and frequently about expectations.
In The Chronicle’s recent forum, Running Campuses in a Pandemic: Hard Lessons from Fall, and Prospects for Spring, Dr. Gary Crosby, vice president for student affairs at Alabama A&M University and Dr. Havidán Rodríguez, president at the University of Albany, both discussed how ongoing communication is key to keeping students informed. “Robust communications from the beginning allow you to address issues in a systematic way,” said Dr. Rodríguez.
Dr. Crosby shared how his campus created shared cultural accountability with students for the fall 2020 semester, with students buying in to the goal of keeping campus as open as possible. He said that this enabled students to keep their peers and faculty accountable to following public health guidelines.
Students are facing much of the same uncertainty they entered with this semester, as classes again shift online and plans for the spring semester are up in the air. As such, clear and frequent communication with students through all available channels — including email, website and social — will be key to student success to wrap up this semester and begin again in 2021.
4. Focus on mental health.
It’s been a difficult year for college students, and we’re seeing the devastating effects that it has had on student mental health. From remote learning to social distancing and the loss of many sport seasons to the disruption of campus events, students have had anything but normal collegiate experiences in 2020. Similarly, heading home won’t be a normal experience either. There may be concerns about high-risk family members or the need to quarantine and wear a mask when at home. Traditional family gatherings will look different this year. The holiday season is already a stressful time for many, and research from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) found that 64% of people with a mental illness report that the holidays make their conditions worse. During the fall semester, TimelyMD has seen 15% of students indicate they have experienced some form of suicidal ideation, which is a significant increase from 5% at the end of the summer.
“With students returning home for the Thanksgiving break, there exists the possibility for additional stressors for students during their first COVID holiday season,” said Dr. Jan Hall, executive director of mental health at TimelyMD. “Even those who are near each other may skip the large gatherings or traditions they enjoy annually.”
It’s critical that students understand and know how to access the mental health resources available to them, whether it is a primary care provider or college health or counseling center resource. With students away from campus, virtual mental health care offers a convenient, immediate option for accessing emotional support. In your campus communications to students leading up to and through this break, be sure that mental health is a focus, students feel supported and resources are easily accessible.
Many uncertainties still exist about the spring semester, but higher ed leaders can take steps now to support students through the winter break. Until a vaccine is widely available, colleges and universities will have to continue to adapt to meet the academic, social and wellness needs of students.
In response to the overwhelming and immediate need for care to support students while they are on winter break, TimelyMD is offering a highly-discounted, quick-start Winter Wellness program. TimelyMD ensures that your students have access to the care they need to thrive during the holiday break and beyond. Click here to learn more about this unique telehealth program, or explore the TimelyMD website to discover how telehealth services can impact your campus.