College student travel can spark campus COVID outbreaks

To reduce danger, administrators can limit travel opportunities by eliminating breaks
By: | July 17, 2020
With research showing how college students on spring break spread coronavirus after returning to campus, a new study urges college leaders to limit long-distance travel, among other precautions. (GettyImages/Robert Daly)With research showing how college students on spring break spread coronavirus after returning to campus, a new study urges college leaders to limit long-distance travel, among other precautions. (GettyImages/Robert Daly)

Spring break 2020 proved that students traveling to and from campus risk bringing COVID infections back to their colleges and universities, potentially igniting local outbreaks, a study has found.

Administrators should, therefore, review or implement policies—such as reducing long-distance travel—that could lower the danger, says a study by Paul Niekamp, an assistant professor of economics at Ball State University, and Daniel Mangrum, a Vanderbilt University Ph.D. candidate in economics.

“As of this time, universities across the United States are deciding how to conduct in-person classes for the Fall 2020 semester,” Niekamp said. “Some institutions have changed their academic calendars to eliminate breaks when students typically travel and to conclude in-person classes before Thanksgiving.”

The researchers examined how COVID was spread by college students who caught the disease at crowded spring break destinations and then returned to campus to spread the virus to others. Some of the transmissions resulted in death, the researchers said.


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“We find that the increase in case growth rates peaked two weeks after students returned to campus,” Niekamp said. “Consistent with secondary spread to more vulnerable populations, we find an increase in mortality growth rates that peaked four to five weeks after students returned.”

The study, which includes data on 7.5 million students from 1,326 four-year colleges and universities, also found that students who traveled through airports, to New York City, and to popular Florida destinations spread more cases of COVID-19 more than did the average student.

The researchers did not find evidence that students who had traveled on cruise ships spreading the infection.

Colleges and universities that went on spring break later in the year closed campus before infected students could return, the study found.

“Our results suggest that reducing long-distance student travel can reduce COVID-19 spread both within the university and for higher-risk individuals in the surrounding county,” Niekamp said.


UB’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on higher ed.