Confessions of a Skeptical Mom
By Laura Berman
COVID-19 was on the uptick last month, with Florida, Texas, Arizona, California and other southern states drenched in hot red on all the coronavirus maps. My 19-year-old daughter was enrolled in physics and biology classes – what else was there for her to do? – and her university president, an infectious disease specialist, was rolling out the plan for fall: A cheery, upbeat propaganda effort dubbed Together We Will.
The idea? Everyone on campus would be expected to marshal untapped reservoirs of carefulness and responsibility as a pathway to still experience the personal growth and connections afforded by a university campus. Dorm bed locations were being reconfigured to be six-feet apart. Plenty of “deep-cleaning” was underway.
A university official, on video, promised that the watchwords would be “socially engaged but physically distanced.” Together We Will.
“This is ridiculous,” I snorted. “It will never happen.”
But Michigan State University has since only partially backed off. Newly released online videos portray administrators in green and white masks – school colors -- issuing enthusiastic welcomes to this bizarre new campus concept. The football season is cancelled. The president, under further consideration, suggests students heading for the residential halls would be better off studying from home, and agrees to promptly refund dorm costs if asked. But he isn’t closing the dorms or the campus.
Many other colleges are shutting down.
The publication Inside Higher Ed reports that hundreds of colleges and universities have changed their plans, going online, and in many cases, closing campuses or dorms since June. Within the last few weeks, Georgetown, George Washington University, and American University, all in Washington, D.C., have gone all-remote.
Smith College announced it would be online and closed its undergraduate campus in early August, as did Princeton. In all, Inside Higher Ed reported, more than 40 colleges have changed their plans in the last couple of weeks. And that was before the University of Pennsylvania opted for “remote learning” on August 10.
My daughter Lina, a sorority-bound sophomore, is eager to resume “real” life, among her peers, exploring the world outside her parents’ home. After spending spring and summer semesters watching mind-numbing Zoom lectures and doing physics problems in our living room, she’s ready for a change of scene, happy to forego at-home laundry and dinners served on ceramic plates for a house packed with 25 young women wearing face masks.
I am certain, if I were her, that I would do the same.
But the reality of the new COVID-19 campus – what Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber describes as “diminished benefits and increased risks”—which is likely to result in a “confining and unpleasant” campus experience – hasn’t fully dawned on most college students. If they can go, they will.
For parents, the situation unfolds as a maze of contradictory and confusing choices, for which there is no easy roadmap.
“Don’t you want me to grow up, Mom?” my daughter asks, reasonably, knowing that I do. But the eerie, mask-wearing, grab-n-go food campus, where wastewater will be analyzed for COVID-19 traces, is an unsettling way to let your kid try out adulthood. You can attempt to measure the risks, but the lack of any solid statistical guidepost is as obvious as the 50-yard-line in an empty football stadium.
Lots of finger-crossing and wishing for the best isn’t exactly a template for good decision-making.
And yet, that’s exactly what we parents are doing. It’s also what college administrators are doing, as they weigh the extraordinary dollar losses against the risks of pandemic infection. When the New York Times surveyed epidemiologists in June about sending their own kids back to school, few gave clear responses. “Epidemiologists’ informal motto is ‘It depends,’” reporters Claire Cain Miller and Margot Sanger-Katz concurred.
So I am punting. In two weeks, Lina will head back to the Michigan State University campus, where the residents will be sharing bathrooms and eating “grab and go” food, mostly in their rooms. Masks are required in all public spaces, indoors and out. All her classes – including a biology lab – are online. Air purifiers are being encouraged. There’s no mandatory testing requirement at the university and, thus, parents were told, no testing will be required at the sorority. “Good luck at the House of Doom,” Lina’s uncle, a pessimistic fellow, tells her.
I repeat the campus mantra -- Together We Will -- and hope for the best.
Laura Berman is a journalist with a lifetime of professional writing experience and a passion for seeing what’s next. As a three-times-a-week columnist for the Detroit News, she earned a reputation for insightful commentary that earned her the National Headliners Award for column-writing and a Society of Professional Journalists lifetime achievement award. Her full-length pieces have appeared in many national magazines, including Newsweek, Time, and Fortune. A graduate of the University of Michigan, Laura is now a freelance writer, editor, and professional writing coach.