For colleges and universities, Thanksgiving looms as a pivotal moment in their quest to finish an extraordinary fall semester amid a dangerous pandemic. Most schools that brought students to campus are expecting to send them home before the holiday and have them stay there for at least several weeks, a measure meant to protect campus communities from the threat of the novel coronavirus.

But dispersing all of those students poses another risk: They might unwittingly infect family, friends and others at home if they happen to be carrying the virus. With that in mind, many schools are planning to encourage or even require students to get tested for the virus before they leave.

This is the flip side of the massive viral testing initiatives undertaken in August and September when students first arrived on campuses. Call it “exit testing.”

The State University of New York announced recently that students who use on-campus facilities in the public system must test negative before heading home. That will require testing 140,000 students statewide during a 10-day period before the break.

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A University of Connecticut student pushes a button at a crosswalk outside one of the student dormitories, in Storrs, Conn. in 2015.  AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File

SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras called it “a smart, sensible policy that protects students’ families and hometown communities and drastically reduces the chances of covid-19 community spread.”

Not all schools go as far as SUNY’s mandate. But experts say that even giving students a chance to get a pre-Thanksgiving test is an important step. Holiday travel, especially on airplanes, buses or trains, could exacerbate rising viral case totals as weather turns colder.

“There’s quite a bit of risk,” said Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Certainly these massive rearrangements of people are times when virus can spread.” If schools have the resources, Mina said, “they should absolutely try to offer testing to students as close as possible to the time they’re leaving campus.”

Across America, the pandemic has forced millions of college students to take some or all of their classes remotely this term. But that doesn’t mean campuses are empty. Many live in dorms or in college towns nearby, whether their classes are in person or online.

Before the school year, educators tinkered with the academic calendar to minimize the chances of major campus outbreaks of the covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. In an ordinary year, students would head home for Thanksgiving and then back to campus for last days of classes and final exams.

But many public health experts deemed that back and forth too dangerous during the pandemic. A widespread solution was to end all in-person teaching before Thanksgiving, send students home and have them finish remotely.

But pre-Thanksgiving travel remains an issue.

The issue is especially important for schools serving a national market, such as the University of Wisconsin. The public university, in a state hard hit this fall by the virus, has about 32,000 undergraduates. University officials say they will expand testing hours on the weekend before Thanksgiving to ensure that any student who wants a viral test before leaving Madison can get one. Those who test positive and live in campus housing would be offered a room to live in isolation temporarily.

The University of Virginia, with 17,000 undergrads, said it will provide every student with the opportunity to get tested before leaving Charlottesville.

The University of Michigan, with 31,000 undergrads, is advising students to get a viral test during the week before leaving Ann Arbor. Those who live in campus housing will be required to do so.

Many students won’t need prompting.

Rachel Schlager, 20, a sophomore at Michigan from Chevy Chase, Md., said she and her parents have spoken “multiple times” about her testing and travel plans. She expects to take a viral test a couple of days before leaving campus, wear a face mask and shield during her flight, isolate in her room at home for a few days and get tested again as soon as possible in Maryland. “My family is pretty cautious,” she said. “It has been a big discussion.”

Some schools have tested all students frequently throughout the semester. For them, the pre-Thanksgiving screen is a given.

Tulane University, in New Orleans, tests its 8,100 undergrads twice a week for the virus whether they live on or off campus. Michael Fitts, the university president, said Tulane has planned on exit testing for months. “Literally we worked this through before we started” the semester, he said. “We had to.”

Anyone who tests positive right before the holiday, Fitts said, will be encouraged – but not required – to stay in a student infirmary until cleared for travel. In general, Fitts said, the best strategy is to keep students in place if they are infected. “It would create a greater risk to be sending individuals home across the country, when they are positive,” he said. Still, he said, some do go home after testing positive – especially if they live nearby – because they prefer to isolate with family.

Hamilton College has about 1,700 undergrads on its campus in Clinton, N.Y. They, too, have undergone viral testing at least twice a week since August. Lately a few cases have emerged. But for the most part, the school has stayed clear of trouble. “We’re going to test right through to the end,” said David Wippman, Hamilton’s president.

Those who test positive just before Thanksgiving will be sent to isolation rooms for 10 days, he said, and if they fail to comply they could face disciplinary action. Wippman doesn’t expect problems. Nearly all students have followed public health rules, he said. “We would feel really sad for any student who had to stay here over Thanksgiving,” Wippman said.

Would the college provide those unfortunates with a turkey-and-trimmings dinner? Wippman chuckled. “We would try to do something special for them,” he said.

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