Next week, thousands of students that arrived in Bloomington in August will return to their families for Thanksgiving. Some will sit alongside elderly and at-risk relatives. Many will leave Indiana, a state which has set new daily COVID-19 case increase records with regularity since Halloween. The state is averaging close to 5,000 new cases each day, and on Thursday, Indiana reported a record 6,642 new cases.
IU’s voluntary on-departure testing slots are not yet full. And although the original appointment slots do not provide space for every student, IU spokesperson Chuck Carney said IU will increase the available slots and meet student demand.
There was no email to students dedicated specifically to offerining a sign-up link for departure testing. Instead, the link was tucked inside overall update emails from IU. Sophomore Zach Foster didn't realize the link was ever sent and would have signed up for his test earlier had he known.
Aaron Carroll, IU’s director of mitigation testing, has said in webinars that he and IU’s Medical Response Team considered keeping students in Bloomington over Thanksgiving due to concerns of spreading the coronavirus to student’s home communities. With colder weather and loosened restrictions, the pandemic has reached its worst point of spread since it began both in Indiana and the United States.
But the MRT knew it wouldn’t be realistic to keep students in Bloomington over Thanksgiving.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends against traveling during the pandemic. It says the best way to protect oneself and others is to stay home. According to the CDC, a negative COVID-19 test alone doesn’t mean it’s safe to travel.
“Any time we have people traveling and moving about during a pandemic, we have a concern for increased spread, especially given that the overwhelming majority of us have yet to be exposed to this virus,” Graham McKeen, IU’s assistant university director of public and environmental health, said in an email.
Traveling home for Thanksgiving during the pandemic has out-of-state-students nervous. Foster lives in the Avenue on College — an off-campus apartment complex of which Residential Programs and Services rents out the rooms this year — and will fly home to Miami for the holiday. Senior Mira Antonopoulos lives in Union Street Center on campus and only has to drive to Chicago, but if she tests positive before she leaves, she’ll have to spend Thanksgiving alone in her room.
“I've been as safe as possible,” Antonopoulos said. “All my friends and I wear masks when we spend time together, but you never know, and I don't want to put my family at risk.”
Foster’s plans for traveling home are no different than any other year. He’ll take the GoExpress shuttle from Bloomington to the Indianapolis airport and fly home from there. He doesn’t have many other options.
Carroll has said in multiple webinars that while he wouldn’t recommend flying during the pandemic, it is relatively safe if necessary.
IU is offering voluntary on-departure testing for students during the week of Nov. 15. The university will use Franklin Hall and Assembly Hall as its testing sites. Students can go online to make appointments. The majority of the remaining slots are earlier in the week, as appointments closer to the weekend when students leave filled first.
Most Big Ten schools are offering some form of on-departure testing, but none are requiring testing. However, the University of Michigan said students living in university owned housing are “expected” to get tested. Some schools such as Purdue are not offering testing for students who are headed home but instead suggesting they get tested once arriving in their hometown.
As a whole, almost all Big Ten universities have plans similar to what IU is offering. Most plans are a series of recommendations like quarantining before traveling and upon arrival at home. They also recommend getting tested whether that be at school, at home or both. The University of Maryland asked all students who are leaving campus not to return this semester.
Getting a test is not Foster’s concern. What scares him is what happens if he tests positive. Because he lives in RPS housing, he will not be allowed to get into his apartment once Thanksgiving break begins and until classes return in person in February. IU has not yet announced spring semester move-in days for RPS residents.
So if Foster tests positive for COVID-19 before leaving Bloomington, he’s not sure where he’ll go.
Carney said since RPS rents out rooms in the Avenue, if Foster got COVID-19 he would be eligible to isolate in Ashton, which is normally reserved for on-campus residents. He would be allowed to choose where he wants to to isolate, whether that be moving into Ashton, going home or moving elsewhere.
Should Foster choose Ashton following a positive test, he would spend Thanksgiving alone, eating turkey by himself in a dorm room.
“I'll definitely be on a pretty hard quarantine right before I leave so I can avoid that whole situation.” Foster said. “That would be pretty awful.”
Antonopoulos plans on going home regardless of her on-departure test result. She’s from Chicago and will drive home with her parents. If she tests positive, she will isolate in her bedroom at home, and eat her Thanksgiving dinner alone.
Once she leaves Union Street, she also won’t be able to return to IU until early February.
“I have to pack all myself up alone because my parents aren't allowed to come up and help,” Antonopoulos said. “I really have to make sure I don't forget anything because I still have two weeks of classes afterwards that I'm going to need stuff for so I'm worried about that.”
While IU cannot stop non-RPS residents from returning to Bloomington when they want, the school hopes moving classes online will encourage students not to come back, and thus limit spread of the disease at IU and the Bloomington community.
Campus housing will be open to international students and others who get approved to stay on campus. Mitigation testing will continue after Thanksgiving break.
Carroll said he will “ramp up” mitigation testing at the beginning of the spring semester again as a means to try and limit spread, a lesson learned from late August and early September when the school struggled to control spiking cases.
Both Antonopoulos and Foster normally have Thanksgiving dinner with relatives. They don’t know exactly what their plans are for this year, but they will not include elderly relatives. Other students and parents, however, have asked Carroll in his weekly webinars about the feasibility of having Thanksgiving with at-risk relatives. Carroll said if everyone who is attending strictly quarantines for two weeks ahead of time, there is little-to-no risk of spreading COVID-19 at a Thanksgiving dinner.
Antonopoulos and Foster both said they know quarantining doesn’t guarantee they’ll test negative. CDC guidelines suggest quarantining before they leave and once they arrive home. For out-of-state students, fear over bringing the coronavirus home with them often outweighs fears of getting the virus themselves.