STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Most U.S. colleges canceled spring break this year. It was an effort to discourage students from traveling and potentially bring the coronavirus back to campus. The cancellation has not stopped students from taking spring break. NPR's Elissa Nadworny spent some time in Miami Beach and is on the line. Good morning.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: I want people to remember you've done some amazing reporting on campuses throughout the pandemic, and now you've got to go where the students are. So you're in South Florida. What's it been like?
NADWORNY: Well, it's what you might imagine a spring break destination to be, especially with nightlife. You know, having spent the last year in sweatpants, it was kind of surprising to see so many people dressed up - miniskirts, lots of heels. You know, we saw a bunch of people going out, big, crowds and we saw more masks on wrists and in pockets and under chins than we did actually covering faces.
INSKEEP: And I guess the biggest risk they're taking is that they're on spring break at all.
NADWORNY: That's right. You know, new data from the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College shows 60% of colleges have done away with spring break this year. They replaced them with smaller, shorter breaks, wellness days in the middle of the week, to try and curb travel. But there's irony here because the rise of online classes in response to the pandemic means it's a lot easier to do college from anywhere. You know, we saw students logged into Zoom attending class by the pool. We talked to students who took exams in their hotel rooms. We met a group of students from the University of Georgia who told us their university canceled spring break, so they just made their own.
INSKEEP: Wow. Well, what are you hearing from students who stayed behind?
NADWORNY: Right. Because spring break isn't just about a beach vacation. It's also a reset, a time to decompress around midterms. And some students are frustrated. They don't want to give that up. I talked to Khanitha Bryant. She's a freshman at San Diego State University who started a petition to restore spring break at her school.
KHANITHA BRYANT: When I'm fighting for spring break for the students, I'm not doing it for the students who are using it to go party and all that. I'm here for students who genuinely need, like, that one-week break to just take a mental health breather, to go to their doctor's appointments, take care of their kids or family.
NADWORNY: Bryant told me she's burnt out. She and many of her classmates, they just need a break.
INSKEEP: Totally understandable. But what are the health concerns about getting away from campus?
NADWORNY: You know, mental health is a serious concern. I just want to say that. I've heard that from lots of students. But there's also research that found that last year, college students who went on spring break, they brought more than just a suntan and a clear mind back to campus. They brought COVID. And weeks later, a nearby community saw more positive cases. Here's economist Daniel Mangrum, who did that study.
DANIEL MANGRUM: About six weeks later, the early spring break counties had about 20% higher cases per capita than counties with later spring breaks that were effectively canceled. We also found that the growth rate in COVID-related deaths was higher about three to five weeks after the early spring break students returned.
NADWORNY: Colleges that are keeping spring break are hoping they'll have students like Hannah Varkey. She's a senior studying cognitive science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. She's staying on campus, and she shared her plans with me.
HANNAH VARKEY: Sleep (laughter) - catching up on sleep, catching up, like, doing all my homework and, like, everything I need to get done.
NADWORNY: Do you think that people at Rutgers are going to travel and party?
VARKEY: I think so. We'll see it on Instagram, definitely.
NADWORNY: And the thing is, we're going to find out kind of the implications of these spring break travelers in a couple weeks. We're going to see - if we see higher case numbers on campus, and colleges are testing more robustly. So we're hoping that that will help kind of curb the spread if we do see positive cases.
INSKEEP: NPR's Elissa Nadworny covers higher education. And if she has a tan, it was socially distanced and purely for work. Elissa, thanks so much.
NADWORNY: Thanks, Steve.
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