Parents of college students worry, should they stay or go?

When Jacqueline Tourville, of Wells, Maine, thinks about sending her daughter off to college this month, the same questions keep circling in her mind.

Constance SommerThe New York Times
Published : 15 August 2020, 10:04 AM
Updated : 15 August 2020, 10:04 AM

“I worry about her getting sick,” said Tourville, a children’s book author, whose daughter, Claire Brown, 18, plans to attend Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, a drive that Tourville has clocked at exactly 2 hours, 22 minutes away. “How do I know what to do? Will the health staff tell me? Will she tell me? If I go to get her, how will I handle driving there and driving back? Do I unroll all the car windows?”

The usual parental worries — whether a college-bound child will be happy, or productive, or find a suitable major leading to a stable career — are getting sidelined this fall by one overwhelming concern: With coronavirus cases spiking in many parts of the country, will students be safe at school?

More than a quarter of US colleges plan to begin fall instruction fully or mostly online, but many are still opening up their dorms. Some, like Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, are limiting space to those students with housing insecurity or other hardships. Some, like Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, also plan to offer housing to students who fit into a number of defined categories, such as veterans or those with on-campus jobs. Yet other online-only campuses, like the University of California, Berkeley, say they’re still accepting housing applications. And yet, some may change plans at the eleventh hour, as the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, did less than three weeks before classes were to begin, with an announcement that it would no longer allow students whose classes are held remotely to move into the dorms.

At many schools, upperclassmen are returning anyway, to off-campus apartments, or fraternity or sorority houses. That leaves parents with the choice of forcing their 20-year-olds to stay home against their will, or allowing them to leave and join their friends, knowing the infection data may not be in their favor.

“This is a situation where you have to pray for the best and be ready for the worst,” said Kelly Hutchison, a retired firefighter and single father living in Chicago. His daughter, Katelyn, is a student at Ithaca College and a member of the school’s track team.

Hutchison won’t soon forget the scene in March, when he arrived in North Carolina to watch her run in a national championship track meet and found his daughter and her teammates in tears. The NCAA had just canceled the meet because of the pandemic. Watching Katelyn, 19, break down like that “was one of the most painful things I’ve ever experienced,” he said.

Mindful of what she lost, he’s trying to give her whatever he can this fall. “I’m not 100% comfortable” with her returning to her upstate New York campus, he said. “But I’m comfortable enough for her to go back.”

Dr Sten H Vermund, dean of the Yale School of Public Health, noted that people under age 35 make up 45% of the US population, but according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, account for less than 1% of COVID-19 deaths, as of Aug 5.

The greater threat is to the community at large, said Dr Preeti Malani, the chief health officer at the University of Michigan: “The issue is, Does the university become a driver of a larger outbreak?”

Jennie Burke, a freelance writer in Baltimore, is aware of that risk. She also is aware that a few weeks after dropping one daughter at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and another at Boston College, she may end up zigzagging around the East Coast to pick them up again. She worries particularly about Caroline, her 18-year-old, who already lost the end of her senior high school year to the pandemic.

Katelyn Hutchison, a member of her school’s track team, and her father, Kelly Hutchison Jackson Park running Track in Chicago on Aug 5, 2020. Hutchison's father has concerns about the coronavirus. Nolis Anderson/The New York Times

“It’s like one disappointment after another,” Burke said. Some parents are still debating whether their child should take the year off entirely. For schools on the semester system, tuition bills for thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars, are due this month. But up until those due dates, colleges are trying to be flexible. In many cases, “you can defer admission, or you can take an academic leave, and they’ll allow you to come back,” said Lynn Pasquerella, the president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Taking such a break, however, may not be realistic, said Jill Schwitzgebel, a college counselor in Celebration, Florida. “What is your child going to do with a gap year?” she said. “Getting a job is tough. Flying overseas is not happening.”

Still, Cara Ray, a college counselor in Waterbury, Vermont, sees students considering a mix of different deferral plans. “I know students who are planning to do volunteer work for the election,” she said.

At first, she said, some worried parents may feel relieved if their kids are staying at home. “But then they are going to have to support their student in their disappointment” at not going away to school, Ray said.

Supporting students who elect to go to campus can also be confounding. Ann Smith’s son, Charlie Gross, left their Los Angeles home in July to return to Humboldt State, a public university near the Oregon border, where he’s a rising sophomore, renting a house with five other young men. “I ask him if they’re being careful,” said Smith, an actor. “He says, ‘Yeah, yeah, we’re socially distancing.’ So I really don’t know.”

For Cheryl Damberg, it’s the opposite problem. Her 20-year-old daughter goes to UC Berkeley. Her 21-year-old son attends UC Davis. Both returned to their off-campus apartments this summer. “The hardest part for me, and for them being back at school, is helping them at a distance process all of this day-to-day uncertainty and anxiety,” said Damberg, a health policy analyst in Los Angeles. “Are they going to get sick? Are the people around them already sick?”

While so much surrounding higher education is in flux, here are some questions to consider:

Q: What if there are coronavirus cases on campus?

A: “There’s going to be outbreaks,” said Deborah Glik, a professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. That doesn’t necessarily mean your child has to leave.

“If you bring a kid home who’s been exposed, that’s another problem,” Glik said. You’re now putting your household at risk. Also, the monitoring capabilities on-campus may be better than any you can provide yourself.

Should you decide to retrieve your child, take precautions. “You can put them in the back, mask them, mask yourself,” said Malani, of the University of Michigan. The CDC recommends opening a car window to increase ventilation.

Q: What should I do if my child gets sick?

A: A long car ride home together may not be safe for you or best for your child. Many student health centers have seen patients with the coronavirus all spring and summer, thanks to students who remained on campus. At this point, they’ve become adept at treating the kind of mild COVID-19 infections common in young adults, Malani said. If they are in a dormitory, the school may send them to a separate building to isolate while they are ill. If they are in an apartment or a house, a friend should bring them food so they can isolate in their room. “For most of them, they are sick for three or four days, then they start to feel better,” she said.

Q: How can I avoid freaking out my kids?

A: When you call your student at school, “it can’t be coronavirus 24/7,” said Bethany Teachman, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. Start instead by asking them about their classes and the friends they are making. “You want to keep those channels of communication open,” she said.

For those students who may be feeling anxious, Teachman recommends downloading the COVID Coach app, which was developed by the Department of Veterans Affairs to help users track their moods and improve emotional well-being.

Whether anxious or not, students will arrive at school to find a campus transformed, in big ways and small, from what they saw on a tour last year, or what they recall from when they evacuated a few short months ago.

Give them space and permission to grieve, Teachman said. “We can’t pretend we can make it all better.” But parents can encourage students to help protect themselves and others by actions as simple as social distancing and wearing masks.

“This is a collective challenge we’re facing, not an insurmountable threat,” she said. Parents should remind their children that “the way this virus works, the actions you take now will make a big difference three weeks from now.”

© 2020 New York Times News Service