College students weigh the risks of holiday travel

Thanksgiving dinner
A table set for family dinner. College students have a lot to consider when deciding whether or not to go home for the holidays.
Gonzalo Bacigalupe | Creative Commons via Flickr 2009

For many college students this year, the decision to go home for the holidays is not an easy one. Spikes in COVID-19 cases and statewide restrictions on gatherings mean what used to be typical trips home need to be considered carefully.

Three college students recently reflected on their 2020 Thanksgiving experience and what their plans are for winter break.

When your loved ones are at a higher risk

a woman
Maddie Dagitz is a senior at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Courtesy of Maddie Dagitz

Maddie Dagitz, a senior at the University of Minnesota studying psychology and Spanish, lives in Minneapolis but her family lives back in her hometown of Madison, Wis.

Dagitz has three roommates and a partner, so she knew she wouldn’t be able to quarantine for 14 days leading up to the holiday.

Dagitz thought about the potential of being an asymptomatic carrier and didn’t want to take the risk of bringing it home, especially because her father is at a higher risk of experiencing a severe case.

“Either I don’t go and then I’m not showing up for my family and dedicating this time to them. And then on the other hand, if I do go, there’s a chance I could bring COVID with me,” said Dagitz. 

Dagitz had many conversations with her family about Thanksgiving, but ultimately the decision was up to her. Even though she wasn’t experiencing symptoms and hadn’t run into any known exposures, she decided to stay in Minneapolis. 

“Being in college, people around us are going to bars and partying. You can’t assume everyone you see is being careful,” said Dagitz. 

She spent this Thanksgiving watching TV with her partner, eating leftovers a family member dropped off for them. She was able to Skype her family that night to talk about what they’re thankful for. 

“It was nice to share some time even if it was through a screen,” said Dagitz.

Dagitz encourages other college students to ask themselves if they are being as safe as they think they are before going home for winter break, especially if they would be around high-risk individuals. “It’s no longer just about you, it’s about your family,” said Dagitz.

When not everyone agrees on what to do

a man
Adam Martin attends school at South Dakota State University in Brookings, S.D.
Courtesy of Adam Martin

Adam Martin attends South Dakota State University in Brookings, S.D., where he is in his fifth year studying community and regional planning. His family lives in Minnesota where COVID-19 restrictions and case counts are very different

Even though the city of Brookings and the campus have mask mandates, Martin is still frustrated with how the rest of the state is handling the pandemic. 

“I'm just furious. We’re at over 1,000 COVID deaths. If you count 1,000 people, that's bigger than most of the towns in the state,” said Martin.

All November, Martin was on the fence about going home. He works in retail where he comes into contact with many different people, and even though he wears a mask, he was still worried about possible exposures. 

He ended up being exposed to a positive case in one of his classes a few days before Thanksgiving. Martin immediately took a COVID-19 test and went into a 14 day quarantine. 

Even though his test came back negative, he still wanted to quarantine for the recommended number of days. He texted his family that he would have to miss Thanksgiving this year to keep the family safe, specifically his high-risk grandmother. However, his family did not respond well. 

They insisted that Martin come home despite the exposure. “My dad said, ‘You know we don’t care about that here.’” 

But Adam Martin did care, so he stayed home in quarantine for Thanksgiving along with his cat. 

“The loneliness was a better trade-off than knowingly getting somebody sick,” said Martin. He also called some of his family on Thanksgiving. 

Martin says he thinks college students should quarantine for 10 to 14 days before going home for winter break — which aligns with Minnesota’s guidelines on if you are exposed. However, he does realize that this is a big ask, especially of essential workers. He urges students to not only think about their potential exposures, but also their family members’ behaviors and their potential exposures as well. 

When you take measures together

Alaina Leske is a senior studying general management at Gustavus Adolphus in St. Peter, Minn., and her family lives a little over an hour away in Hector Minn. When making the decision to go home or not, Leske’s most important factor was safety. Leske and her family decided to all get tested and quarantine as much as possible in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving.

a woman
Alaina Leske attends Gustavus Adolphus in St. Peter, Minn.
Courtesy of Alaina Leske

During these weeks, Alaina was only going between her apartment and her work, a nursing home where they required PPE to be worn at all times. Leske was still worried about possibly being exposed. 

“I don’t really know what the right answer is. I want to follow the rules, but I also want to see my family as long as we’re safe about it,” she said.

In a typical year, Leske’s family would get together with their extended family at her aunt’s house. This year, they decided to instead have a small gathering between the six of them at her mother’s house.

Usually, they would have each family bring a dish in a potluck style. Their aunt would always bring her homemade apple cider, so they made some their own to bring some normalcy back to the holiday.

Leske recommends that college students have open conversations with their families about their plans to stay safe over winter break. 

“Even if it takes a while to plan, it’s definitely worth thinking about,” said Leske.

As for what these three college students’ plans are for winter break, those are still pending. Dagitz plans to isolate leading up to her trip home, Martin will definitely wear a mask if he goes home and Leske wants to get tested like she did before Thanksgiving. 

Whatever these three decide to do, they say they’ll prioritize keeping themselves and their loved ones safe this holiday season.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.