As much as I am looking forward to Thanksgiving break, part of me dreads it. It’s not the Thanksgiving family dynamics, or even the excruciating five hour flight home. But the idea of nearly 6,000 students getting on planes, spreading out across the world and then returning back to Emory almost makes me wish we could all stay on campus. 

Students traveling over the holidays will likely be exposed to COVID-19. If 2020 has taught us anything, cases will likely spike after the holidays due to lack of social distancing and mask wearing with travel and festivities. We do not need a repeat of 2020. The only way to ensure that students don’t bring COVID back to Emory and to keep our community safe is to implement gateway testing for students when they return. 

In Georgia, only 48% of the population has been vaccinated, meaning that students flying out of Atlanta are more than likely to bump shoulders with unvaccinated people. Once they board the plane, people will be exposed again, sitting in tight spaces, removing masks to snack on chips and sipping Coca-Cola from the snack cart. In the era of the delta variant and breakthrough cases, these concerns are just as relevant as they were last Thanksgiving. 

But beyond the issue of vaccination, traveling this month is especially dangerous. This year, with an estimated 53.4 million Americans travelling for the holiday, Thanksgiving travel is predicted to meet or exceed pre-pandemic levels. Airports present a huge risk factor when students are exposed to thousands of people in a condensed space as they check baggage, wait for flights and board planes. Last week, Atlanta lifted its mask mandate, allowing citizens to go unmasked in most indoor locations. Though the airport still mandates masks, travelers have been running around Atlanta for weeks without masks. Even more concerning, masks are only as effective as their enforcement. With millions of people flying for Thanksgiving, mask wearing will be even harder to enforce. Even those who are vaccinated and wear masks will be forced to interact with those who do not. It will be the ultimate group project, one where we trust strangers to put in the work of keeping everyone safe, but they rarely come through. 

Though traveling may seem like a scene from the apocalypse, we are not powerless in keeping Emory safe and COVID rates low. Mandating re-entry testing before students are allowed back on campus lets Emory control COVID spread on campus by determining who is positive for COVID before the virus spreads to the rest of the community. With 15,000 available tests, only 8% of which were administered during the most recent week, Emory certainly has enough resources to test everyone upon return. 

In the fall, many universities, including Columbia University (N.Y.), Harvard University (Mass.) and Amherst College (Mass.), all implemented gateway testing for students upon arrival while also requiring masking and vaccination. For Thanksgiving break, Stanford University (Calif.) requires testing for students who travel outside the state with one test the day students return to California, another test 3-5 days after returning to California and continued weekly testing for the rest of the semester. A small number of colleges are even shifting to online instruction after Thanksgiving because travel is such a safety hazard.

Currently, Emory does not mandate re-entry testing or weekly COVID testing for vaccinated students. Early in the semester, the COVID spike went poorly with delays in quarantine housing at the Emory Conference Hotel, trouble accessing COVID test appointments and inadequate contact tracing. No one wants a repeat. Gateway testing is the answer to the question of Thanksgiving travel. Students who test positive can appropriately quarantine before they live in residential halls, go to classes and clubs or eat in the dining halls; those who test negative won’t have to worry about exposure to COVID on campus.

For a university with a $7.9 billion dollar endowment and a hospital on campus, Emory is more than capable of implementing re-entry testing for students. Given that this Thanksgiving is set to have a record number of travelers, Emory must mandate COVID testing for students before they arrive back on campus. Otherwise, the Emory Conference Hotel may once again see almost every room booked. Emory can and should prevent the inevitable COVID surge when students return from Thanksgiving break — it just has to try. 

Chaya Tong (25C) is from the Bay Area, California.