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Queen’s University students are on campus on Sept. 11, 2020.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Louisa Flock knows well the risks of COVID-19, but the first-year student at Queen’s University is one among thousands of students across the country heading home this weekend to reunite with family and friends.

She just has to get out of quarantine first.

Ms. Flock has been self-isolating in student residence for the past 12 days, ever since a friend tested positive for COVID-19. She has no symptoms and has twice tested negative but has been confined to a room. She has studied, watched the leaves change outside her window and wished for the day she could rejoin her friends and walk in the fresh air.

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A trip home to St. Thomas, Ont., promises a chance to relax in familiar surroundings after a bumpy start to an already unusual university year. She plans to take precautions, wearing a mask on the train and keeping to herself when she transfers in Toronto, but she does worry about the possibility that she or students like her could be contributing to the spread of COVID-19 this weekend.

Many universities have asked students to stay put this year and forego the traditional trip home.

Many universities have asked students to stay put this year and forego the traditional trip home. In Kingston, where Queen’s is located, the slogan has been “Give thanks, not COVID.” Local public-health chief Dr. Kieran Moore said the movement of students to and from areas of relatively low COVID-19 transmission, such as Kingston, to hotspots such as Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa, creates increased risks for the health system.

At the moment the vast majority of the 20 active cases in the Kingston area come from the 18 to 25 age group. Conservative forecasts project a doubling of cases by Oct. 25. In a worst-case scenario where 20 students return with COVID-19 after Thanksgiving, cases are projected to quintuple, which would have a serious impact on the health system.

Dr. Moore said he has discussed the risks with local hospitals so they can anticipate an increased burden and with Queen’s so it can communicate to students and increase testing capacity.

“We know from our intelligence network that students have already left Kingston and gone back home. …They’re going to large social events, typically, when they return to their communities,” Dr. Moore said.

That’s how people of that age group behave, he said. They’re highly social and want to rekindle relationships.

Dr. Moore said what happens this weekend could have important repercussions. If case counts keep mounting, he said he would recommend that Queen’s cancel in-person classes for the winter semester, with a few exceptions.

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Queen’s sent a message to all students last week urging them to act responsibly. The Faculty of Health Sciences was strongly advised not to travel this weekend. Other students were asked to limit their interactions and monitor themselves for symptoms when they return.

Ashleigh Tuite, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto, compared this Thanksgiving holiday to March Break, which played a significant role in the early spread of the disease in Canada.

“You have people moving from areas where there are high levels of COVID transmission to areas where there are low levels of community transmission. The concern is that they’ll bring infection to places that currently don’t have a lot of COVID," Prof. Tuite said.

Both Prof. Tuite and Dr. Moore said they’re surprised they haven’t seen concerted messaging from provincial health officials around Thanksgiving and university students. One concern, Prof. Tuite said, is that parents will see their returning children as part of their household, as they’ve always been, even though those children have been living under a different roof for several weeks. So the students will come home and mix with family members in a way that could spread illness and then return to university where the same could happen again.

John Le, a third-year student at Queen’s, is staying put this weekend. In years past he’s looked forward to seeing old friends, but this year everyone is mindful of the risks, he said.

But he still plans to travel home to Alberta when the fall reading week begins in about two weeks. He said he’s concerned about the possibility of bringing COVID-19 to his parents' small community of Cold Lake, but he also thinks being with family and having a break is important to maintaining mental health.

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“I’m going to take every precaution I can. Wear a mask, try to social distance throughout the trip, even getting through the airport,” he said. “My biggest worry is spreading the risk.”

Ms. Flock said she feels better travelling home knowing she has tested negative and has been in isolation for two weeks.

She plans to spend the weekend with her mother and brother. She said they likely won’t visit elderly relatives as they normally would.

“It’ll just be a close family Thanksgiving, which I’m grateful for. I’m excited to go home and just rest and be around my family and dog,” she said.

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