Hoarse voices reminiscing about last night's wild time; young people in oversized university t-shirts crowding the liquor store; a cabal of high heels waiting for ride shares, with nary a mask in sight.
Pandemic or not, it's spring break in Miami Beach, Fla.
At a hotel restaurant overlooking the beach on Thursday, a group of students from the University of Georgia raised their cocktails to celebrate the start of the weekend. The University of Georgia is one of many colleges that decided to cancel or alter spring break — which typically happens in early or mid-March — to discourage students from travelling. But the students at the table told NPR they chose to make their own spring break. Several had online classes and exams earlier that day, which they attended from their hotel rooms. It's a story NPR heard over and over again from spring breakers along Collins Avenue, Miami Beach's main drag.
According to new research from the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College, about 60% of colleges have done away with spring break this year. Many campuses are instead offering smaller, shorter breaks or wellness days. Of the more than 600 colleges offering alternative breaks, scheduling days off mid-week was the most common option, likely an attempt to curb travel away from campus, and ultimately keep coronavirus cases down.
But these campus health efforts have hit a major roadblock: The rise of online classes means students can now do college from anywhere — even next to a pool with palm trees gently swaying in the background.
"You can make all of the rules and tell students to stay on campus, but at the end of the day, they're going to do what they want to do," says Daniel Mangrum, an economist who has studied the connection between last year's spring break and the spread of COVID-19. Mangrum found that student travel in March 2020 was associated with the virus spreading more on campuses and in nearby communities. It was also associated with higher mortality rates.
"The riskier destinations correlated with worse outcomes," explains Mangrum. Using anonymous smartphone data, he and his co-author, Paul Niekamp, found higher rates of positive cases at and around colleges where students had either travelled by plane or visited New York City or Florida.
A year later, many colleges are urging students not to travel at all for spring break. At the University of California, Davis, administrators offered students $75 "staycation" grants to help curb travel. The grant was made available to 2,500 students. Currently, nearly 6,000 students live in on-campus housing, though many more live off-campus in the city of Davis.
"Paying students is probably the perfect route to go," says Mangrum. "If you can change their cost benefit analysis to make it so it's a little bit better for them to stay on campus, then maybe you can affect their decisions."
For students who decide to travel anyway, the traditional spring break rituals can come with increased risk, especially when not everyone is wearing masks. Gathering outside on a beach is safer, in principle, when it comes to mitigating the spread of the coronavirus, but it can become dangerous when people are packed in close together. Sharing hotel rooms and spending time in crowded indoor spaces — like bars and clubs — also gives the virus more opportunities to spread. Masks can offer a layer of protection, but in the course of NPR's reporting from Miami Beach, masks appeared on visitors' chins and in pockets more often than on their faces.
Miami-Dade County was already experiencing high levels of community spread before students descended, with a test positivity rate of 10%. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend avoiding travel, and even the mayor of Miami Beach, Dan Gelber, has expressed concern about spring breakers bringing COVID-19 to his city.
"I don't want to be a superspreader," he told NPR earlier this month. His message for travelers: "If you're coming here to do anything and you think this is an anything-goes place, just don't come here. Please go somewhere else."
Despite that, the city is busy: Projected hotel occupancy for the month of March is at 72% capacity and home shares are up by 27% from their 2019 pre-pandemic numbers, according to the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Of course spring break isn't always about a beach vacation. For many students, it's a reset, a time to decompress around midterms. And some students aren't too pleased to give that up. San Diego State University freshman Khanitha Bryant, who sometimes goes by Khanitha Soeung, started a petition to restore spring break at her school.
"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," she says. "I'm here for students who genuinely need like that one week break to just take a mental health breather, to go to their doctors appointments, to take care of their kids or family."
Bryant created an anonymous google form for fellow students to explain why they needed a spring break. She heard from students who planned to use the week to work extra hours to offset the rest of the semester; students who needed time for doctors appointments or to take care of family members; and international students taking classes overnight, who were hoping to actually keep some normal hours and see their families and friends for a few days.
"They just need a break," Bryant says. And she does too.
"I feel burnt out. I'm tired. I don't have the motivation to finish the rest of the semester," she says. "I almost changed my major because I was like, I can't do this for another year." Despite the petition, San Diego State stuck with its decision to cancel spring break and replace it with four "rest and recovery" days.
Hannah Varkey counts herself among the lucky students who do get a spring break, one she is very much looking forward to. She's a senior studying cognitive science at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, and she plans to stay on campus for the week. "I'll definitely go for walks, catch up on sleep, catch up doing all my homework," she says. She's hoping she might even have time to read a little poetry. Is she worried about her classmates traveling and partying and bringing the coronavirus back to campus?
"Definitely," she says. And when they do, "We'll see it on Instagram."
Lauren Migaki contributed to this report.
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.