College and COVID: Do students quarantine on campus or at home?

As students test positive for virus or are exposed to it, parents ponder next step

My son and I had the talk this weekend. Not the birds and the bees. The one about the cough and the sneeze and what happens if he, as a college student, tests positive for COVID-19 or is exposed to someone who has.

The quandary for parents whose children are infected or exposed: Do you worry from afar or start driving to pick them up?

Parents must determine if it’s wiser for their children to quarantine at school or return home to hide out in their bedrooms or basements. Out-of-state parents are debating on social media if they ought to dash down to Georgia in two cars so their COVID-positive daughters or sons can drive home alone in one of the vehicles rather than risk having them in the back seat for the 13 hours to New York.

These are not theoretical questions; thousands of college students have already tested positive in the last two weeks. Across the country, college students either arrived at school with the virus or contracted it from social gatherings and dorms, some even before their first class.

Since the University of Alabama resumed 14 days ago, more than a thousand students tested positive. In a letter to University of Georgia fraternities and sororities, Victor K. Wilson, vice president for student affairs, warned, “The off-campus gatherings, the lack of compliance to good public health practices, and the continued behaviors that put your friends’ and community members’ health in jeopardy HAVE TO STOP.”

My son attends Georgia Tech, which has the state’s most robust campus-based COVID-19 testing program. He’s already been tested twice -- both negative -- as part of Tech’s push for weekly surveillance testing to contain the spread of the disease. As of Sunday, Tech performed 21,105 saliva tests with 395 confirmed positive for Covid-19 through follow-up diagnostic testing.

Most infected Tech students have experienced mild symptoms, and none has been hospitalized, said physician Benjamin Holton, senior director of Stamps Health Services, in a livestream presentation to Tech parents last week

My conversation with my Tech student focused on what he would do if he tested positive and had to isolate, or if he was exposed to an infected classmate and required to quarantine. Like many parents discussing this on social media, I told him he ought to come home, even though Tech has accommodations at the ready.

Tech is whisking students who test positive out of campus housing to isolate in nearby hotels. It’s also quarantining exposed students in hotel rooms or in empty dorm apartments. “Once you test positive, you can’t go back to campus,” said Tech spokesman Blair Meeks Monday. “We immediately take you to isolation housing, and, if you are a residential student, we will house you as long as you need.” Tech is delivering two meals a day to isolated and quarantined students, he said.

Of course, parents can take their students home to isolate or quarantine, said Meeks.

And that is what Tech would prefer, said Holton. “For both quarantine and isolation, we recommend students go home, if that’s at all possible,” he said. “Yes, there is some risk, but with most families, certainly not all families, a student could isolate and quarantine in a room by themselves and have access to a bathroom only they’re using. The number of people they could expose is much greater here than at home.”

An incentive for parents to house their kids at home: If Tech exhausts all its available space to isolate and quarantine students, that could contribute to a move to full remote learning, said Holton.

“That would be a factor in making the decision, absolutely,” said Holton, adding that Tech was looking to secure additional off-campus rooms to lessen that possibility. “If we max out all of that, that would be factor in whether we continue in-person classes or not.”

As is the case at UGA, Georgia College and the University of North Georgia, Holton said the spread of COVID-19 is not coming from classrooms. “It is occurring in social settings.”