Amid COVID-19 surges, North Texas college students head home for Thanksgiving

Few of the major universities in Texas strongly encouraged students to isolate or quarantine before leaving for Thanksgiving and pretty much the rest of the fall semester. But several did provide free testing for those that wanted it.

Some say they feel students have done a good job following pandemic safety measures.

Many colleges offered free testing for students and some took advantage of that. But health officials caution, a negative test is just for that moment in time.

The fall semester for college students across Texas was anything but normal. Masks have been an everyday accessory on campus. Now, tens of thousands are heading back to their hometowns, tempted to see friends and extended family over the Thanksgiving break.

“I had some friends get tested before going home, some getting tested here and some not getting tested at all,” said SMU student Brandon Flores.

Some schools, like Baylor University, tested students for COVID throughout the semester. Now, Baylor officials are hoping they continue to take precautions at home.

“Our key message is don't forget what you have done for the entire semester,” said Baylor spokesperson Jason Cook. “Keep wearing face coverings. Keep social distancing.”

Brandon Flores is a sophomore at SMU. He returned home to El Paso Sunday.

“Originally, I wanted to get tested before I got home, but I never got around to that,” he said. “So I just drove home, came back to my house, especially with Thanksgiving coming around and being around elders and whatnot, I am going to have to get tested before I see them.”

El Paso is one of the hardest-hit COVID areas in Texas. More than 30% of hospital beds are occupied by COVID patients. The problem so serious, the Texas National Guard was brought in to assist hospitals and morgues.

“It is very bad,” Flores said. “Luckily within my friend group and my family, there have been no cases of COVID as of right now.”

Representatives from Baylor University and UT Austin say students exceeded expectations for following COVID protocols.

“The students have stepped up. They really have,” said Art Markman, with UT Austin.

Both campuses currently have less than 150 active COVID cases, respectively.

Baylor and UT made free COVID tests available for students before heading home, but it was not mandatory. Both schools are shifting classes online only for the rest of the fall semester. They have not decided if a mandatory negative test will be required when students return in January.

“The type of messaging we use for that and the kinds of requirements we might place for those students who live in on-campus housing will be determined closer to the beginning of the semester when we get a feel for what the pandemic looks like,” Markman said.

Baylor and UT students start class Jan. 19. Baylor says the delayed start is to give students time to quarantine.