Even though she already has had COVID-19, Emma Zellmer is hesitant about returning home from college for Thanksgiving.

The Minnesota State University, Mankato junior is leaning toward spending the holiday with her immediate family at their Eagan home, but she likely won’t decide until a day or two beforehand to make sure no one has been exposed to the virus. It’s a dilemma that thousands of college students in Minnesota are facing ahead of the holiday break.

“I’m still within that period where I shouldn’t be able to get it again,” Zellmer said. “However, I still want to make sure since the science is kind of unclear on [immunity].”

Amid a semester of mostly online classes and social distancing, college students are eager to see their families but worry they could bring the virus home or catch it once they get there. Many students will have little reason to stay on campus over the holidays, as a number of colleges, including the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State, Mankato, will fully shift to distance learning after Thanksgiving.

The fall semester break comes just as the state is experiencing record-setting increases in new COVID-19 cases and deaths. Colleges have also seen some of that case growth on their campuses.

Many institutions are offering on-campus testing for students before the holiday. About 4,000 students, staff and faculty filed into the U’s Twin Cities campus fieldhouse on Monday and Tuesday for a saliva testing event.

State health officials are urging college students to take a COVID-19 test before traveling. And they recommend that students either go home and stay there for the rest of the semester or not travel at all. Those who opt to travel home for Thanksgiving and return to campus the week after should get tested a second time, state epidemiologist Cynthia Kenyon said.

Some colleges are offering to provide holiday meals to students who stay on campus. Kenyon urges students who don’t travel to make the most of their situation by having a virtual celebration with their family or a dinner with their roommates.

“With the numbers we’re seeing in Minnesota, we need to lay low,” Kenyon said.

U sophomore Shelby Jacobson tested negative for COVID-19 earlier this week and will head to Sioux Falls, S.D., to stay with her family through the Thanksgiving weekend. Her parents and younger brother are quarantining ahead of her arrival, she said.

The family won’t be dining with their relatives this year but will continue their ritual of having a nontraditional meal.

“We have decided that it’ll be lasagna this year, which I’m very much looking forward to because it’s not a … dish that my college student self will make,” Jacobson said.

Zellmer said her family’s Thanksgiving will likewise look much different this year. Relatives plan to deliver helpings of food to one another’s houses and eat together over Zoom.

“We just don’t want to get each other sick or bring anything, especially to my grandparents,” said Zellmer, who should still get to enjoy a slice of her grandma’s “amazing” pumpkin pie.

The break will mark an end to in-person learning for many college students in Minnesota.

The U, Winona State University, Minnesota State University Moorhead, Macalester College and a slew of other schools will shift most classes online for the remainder of the semester. Other colleges, such as the University of St. Thomas, plan to continue offering some hybrid and in-person classes in addition to online instruction.

Those who remain on campus after Thanksgiving will likely face new restrictions under Gov. Tim Walz’s latest order shutting down bars, restaurants, entertainment venues and fitness clubs for four weeks. In a message to students Thursday, U President Joan Gabel said dining halls will switch to takeout only, and campus gyms, recreation centers, museums and other venues will be closed.

“These new restrictions come at a time when we have already been asked to scale back on holiday and family celebrations, and I empathize with how incredibly difficult it is to learn that more sacrifice is needed,” Gabel said.

At Macalester in St. Paul, students who travel away from campus and return after the break will be required to self-isolate for two weeks, President Suzanne Rivera said, calling it the “least attractive” way to finish the semester.

Students at Minnesota State, Mankato, who are living in campus residence halls will have a financial incentive to leave early, President Richard Davenport said. The college will issue prorated room and board refunds to those who opt to move out at Thanksgiving.

“Those are the right things to do, I think, and our students very much appreciate that,” Davenport said. “Hopefully, we’ll all survive this pandemic and be ready for a strong spring semester.”


Twitter: @ryanfaircloth