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College kids contemplate the risk of seeing family and possibly infecting them


The sudden surge of COVID around the nation is complicating holiday plans for college students. Many who have tested positive are unable to go home. And as NPR's Tovia Smith reports, others are facing the tough call of whether to visit family and risk infecting them.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Lourdes Polias Kingery (ph) has been both looking forward to and fretting about her daughter coming home for Christmas. Her husband's undergoing chemo and radiation for stage four cancer. And their daughter is a college student in New York City, where COVID cases are running higher than ever.

LOURDES POLIAS KINGERY: I was like, oh, God. You know, we don't know if you are incubating.

SMITH: Polias Kingery actually considered telling her daughter not to come just in case, but the decision was made for them this week when her daughter tested positive for COVID, and flying home to Texas was no longer possible.

POLIAS KINGERY: It is really hard because we don't know if this is going to be one of, you know, our last Christmas together. We don't know.

SMITH: Instead, her daughter will spend Christmas alone in New York.

POLIAS KINGERY: I sent her a little teeny tiny table top Christmas tree, and she said that it brought her sadness because it reminded her she wasn't home.

SMITH: NYU student Jonathan Schatzberg (ph) doesn't celebrate Christmas, but he also felt the imperative to get home to his family on Long Island this week, which is one year since his aunt died of COVID. But he, too was crushed to find out that he tested positive and had to quarantine.

JONATHAN SCHATZBERG: It kind of feels like this cosmic punch in the gut that I have to grieve this anniversary alone in, like, my own little bubble.

SMITH: Students are especially vulnerable this year. Kira Gartner (ph) says she was afraid to bring her daughter home from New York to Philadelphia, but equally afraid to not bring her home.

KIRA GARTNER: You're really weighing the concern about COVID infection against the real impact of leaving a young person who's already struggling with anxiety and depression alone during a time where they were expecting to be home and being joyful and celebratory. It would be very, very lonely.

LYNN PASQUERELLA: It's Dickensian visions of Ebenezer Scrooge alone.

SMITH: Lynn Pasquerella from the Association of American Colleges and Universities says schools are acutely aware of how stressed many students are from the pandemic, and with so many in need of last minute accommodations this year, Pasquerella says schools are scrambling and improvising.

PASQUERELLA: They're trying to reach out to alumni who can offer housing, serve as mentors, take students in to create cohorts of students that can serve as buddies for each other during this time.

SMITH: Cornell University, where more than 1,200 students tested positive this past week, is sending care packages to students isolating in hotels and running virtual fitness classes for them. UCLA is offering stranded students holiday activities like making gingerbread houses. And health services will be widely available, according to Gerri Taylor with the American College Health Association.

GERRI TAYLOR: Most colleges have systems in place where students can call 24/7, whether it's for a medical emergency or psych emergency.

SMITH: Still, students who stay will be the exception. Most are forging ahead with travel plans.

NATHANIEL SNOW: There's a high opportunity cost to not going, so we're going to.

SMITH: Nathaniel Snow (ph) says he's lost half a dozen people close to him to COVID, but it's not derailing his holiday plans. His family in Indiana, his extended family in New Mexico and his son in college in New York will all meet up in California.

SNOW: My family is healthy. We have all had three shots. We're taking very seriously, but we're social creatures. They need to be around each other.

SMITH: The next question will be whether students who do travel for the holidays can pass strict testing requirements to return to campus afterwards. Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.