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Caution urged as college students head home for the holidays

Spread of COVID-19 is a concern
College students pose COVID-19 risk
Posted at 10:50 PM, Nov 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-19 22:50:48-05

INDIANAPOLIS — With thousands of students across Indiana transitioning back to their homes to finish the academic semester online, health officials are pleading for them to to do so cautiously as the state continues to see record COVID-19 increases.

Many of the new COVID-19 cases across the state are trending back to the 18- to 30-year-old group, according to Indiana State Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box. That's especially concerning as college and university students prepare to go home for the holidays, she said.

Box advised students leaving their campuses to "behave as if you have COVID, or have been exposed," and recommended they quarantine at home for 14 days. She also encouraged students to wear a mask inside their house, use their own bathroom when possible and avoid seeing elderly relatives until they've completed a two-week isolation without symptoms of the virus.

"And please don't head out to the bars or hang out with all the friends you haven't seen for months," she said. "You need to keep those social bubbles small."

Already, a number of Indiana's colleges and universities have started screening students for coronavirus before they head home.

University of Notre Dame students must undergo coronavirus testing before they leave South Bend for the winter break. A student who is exposed or tests positive must quarantine on campus for two weeks, and those who don't complete the test can't register for classes in the spring.

Although students at Ball State University in Muncie won't be required to take a COVID-19 test before leaving campus, the university has mandated students to submit a test result within seven days before arriving back on campus in January. Students who don't comply will not be permitted to access their academic courses or move into residence halls.

Indiana University in Bloomington - where samplings of faculty, staff and students are tested each week to identify and contain outbreaks - will open its weekly surveillance testing to all of the 42,000 students living on or near campus. But while all students are being offered a test just before Thanksgiving, most will not be required to take one.

Coronavirus testing is also available at Purdue University, but the school is only encouraging a test, not mandating one, before or after traveling.

To help ramp up testing, the state plans to send BinaxNOW rapid-testing cards to several universities around the state, Box said.

"Every student who is tested will receive information that tells them what the results mean and the steps that they should take," Box said, noting, however, that the rapid tests provide "just a snapshot in time" and could show a positive test as negative, depending on when the student was exposed.

While Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear announced Wednesday that all K-12 schools in the Bluegrass State will cease in-person instruction starting November 23, Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb has resisted another statewide closure of schools like the one he issued in March.

The Republican governor has instead insisted that mask-wearing and social distancing "are proven to work" so schools can remain open for in-person instruction.

Still, as virus spread increases, dozens of Indiana school districts are changing in-person learning schedules or sending students home altogether. Many schools are having trouble staying open due to the growing number of teachers and students who are sick or on quarantine.

All schools in Marion County must close and return to virtual instruction by Nov. 30. Schools are encouraged to close sooner, if possible, and instruction will remain online until at least Jan. 15.

Hamilton Southeastern Schools in Fishers elected to move students to virtual-only learning this week, citing too few healthy teachers and concerns over local hospital capacities. A head cook at one of the district's elementary schools died Tuesday night from COVID-19, said Superintendent Allen Bourff. Pam Podany was entering her eighth year working for the district and had been out from work since fall break, which started Oct. 19.

This story was prepared for the Associated Press by Casey Smith.