Week 18: Will College be a Super-Spreader Event?

July 30, 2020

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Four days ago, a mom named Sonia posted this to the Michigan State Spartan Parents Group on Facebook: “Please tell me are you nervous about Covid-19?”

Two hundred people have answered — so far — and here’s the breakdown:

  • Yes — 80
  • Believe it’s manageable with precautions — 29
  • No — 91

I’m not going to bore you with the “yes”es and their reasons. The manageable-with-precautions group seems to rest its faith in the ubiquity of hand sanitizer, the efficacy of cloth masks, and the maturity of college students. I think I begin to teeter after the hand sanitizer and fall off completely after the cloth masks.

Finally, here are a few of the “no” answers.

“Hell no!” responded Alisa.

“Nope … not at all,” wrote Monica. “Why are you asking the question?”

“Nope,” said Becky. “Have other things more pressing.”

“NO, not in the least,” wrote Julie. “My Dr told me my kids have a much higher chance of dying from a lightening strike. And a car accident is more likely, too. This is in God’s hands like everything else.”

And the kicker, for me anyway, from a dude named Dennis: “Nope. It’ll be over November 5th.”

(“Nope,” btw, is a real favorite of the “what-me-worry?” crowd. There’s an absoluteness about it, I guess, that a simple “no” presumably fails to convey.)

I was struck by many things as I scrolled down the interminable list of replies, but one in particular that stood out, from people on both sides of the question, was the assumption that the worry was individual and particular. They were, or they weren’t, worried about whether their own child would get the coronavirus at school.

This occurs to me because I’m working on that exact article, about parental anxiety surrounding kids going back to college. But the more I report it out, the more convinced I become that it’s not our college-age sons and daughters we should be worried about, when we talk about a return to campus. It’s everyone else. What we are doing this fall, as a nation, is highly risky.

There’s been lots of talk about which colleges are holding in-person classes and which are going completely online. The New York Times even has a database, where you can type in the name of a college and learn about its plan for the upcoming semester. But we forget — this isn’t elementary school. It’s not even community college. Just because you lock up the classrooms doesn’t mean the kids stay at home.

At Cal, where my older son goes, only freshmen live in the dorms, and not even all of them, because demand outstrips supply. Nearly every sophomore, junior, senior and graduate student lives in off-campus housing, whether that’s an apartment, a co-op, a rented house with friends, or a fraternity or sorority. Berkeley has gone 100 percent virtual for the fall. But that’s education-only. Dorms are open and, more importantly, the kids are heading back to town.

Just think, how many thousands of people will be on the move in August and September, criss-crossing county lines and state boundaries and the nation itself. And many of these people, if they catch the virus, will have a mild or even asymptomatic case. Plus they are young, with a high tolerance for risk. I don’t see how this is going to work out well, or even manageably, given the current state of things.

I just got off the phone with an infectious disease doctor at the University of Michigan. The danger, she said, really isn’t to the students. It’s exceedingly rare for young people without pre-existing conditions to end up hospitalized with COVID, she said. At most, they tend to have a fever for three or four days, then they bounce back up and go about their business.

The trouble, she said, is for the rest of the community. The virus may begin on a residence hall, or in a fraternity house (already, in California alone, there have been such cases at U.C. Berkeley and USC), but if the university doesn’t have robust contact tracing and quarantining practices in place — or if it does, but they get overwhelmed — then that’s not where it ends.

Sorry. I know this is scary stuff. But after reading article after article, and preparing to write one myself on this subject, I feel like we’re failing to see the elephant in this room. It’s not just about keeping the students safe, or the faculty, or how many people can share a classroom. It’s about what happens in every college town in every city in the country this fall, and how safe those people, newly arrived from literally all over, can keep the rest of us.

Week 15: College Choices

July 9, 2020

Sunrise over Agriculture Hall, Auditorium Road and Hannah Plaza, Michigan State Univerity

In less than six weeks, we’re going to have to start making some consequential decisions about schooling.

Our oldest, Liam, is supposed to start his senior year at U.C. Berkeley next month. He wants to drive up north, from our home in L.A., on August 19. He says I should unload him and his stuff on the sidewalk in front of his fraternity house, give him one last hug and speed away. All of his classes will be online, which will keep professors and staff safe. As for Liam, he’ll be living with 30 to 40 other guys, in a house that never seemed that clean to me to begin with.

Our middle son, Eli, is still waiting on a move-in date for his dorm at Michigan State, where he’ll be a sophomore. The school says it’s a go for a late August start, which in Eli’s case means living on campus, one history class online, and a slew of music classes that are listed as hybrid, or even in-person. The School of Music hasn’t released many details, so he and his friends have filled in the blanks, imagining music theory classes where you go once a week, on your assigned day, in person, and the rest of the time participate as best you can from your computer screen in your room. He’s a trombone player, and he’s hoping to do some of his playing in person. Can you imagine being a middle-aged professor in a room, no matter what the size, with eight or nine kids blowing through their horns, during this pandemic? No, I can’t either.

Eli’d like me to fly with him across the country, so I can help him retrieve his things from a friend’s basement, where they’ve been stored since he rushed home in March, and move them into his new room. But that seems like a lot of unnecessary exposure for me. He’ll have to go alone this time.

Meanwhile, LA Unified continues to try to plot out a path forward, but it’s looking narrower every day. I just don’t see, with the city’s numbers the way they are, how the district will bring kids back for in-person classes. This will be a hard pill for Sarah to swallow: after months of isolation, months more ahead. But I will know she’s safe. And maybe we can finally go somewhere. Bill has to reserve vacation time months in advance, and when everything was going haywire during the initial lockdown, we forgot to book days during the summer. We figure if classes are online, maybe she could do online from a rented condo in Palm Springs for a week in October or November. Something to look forward to, at least.

Meanwhile, I worry about my boys. I don’t see how either of them goes back to school and escapes exposure to the virus. And not just a little exposure, but high, repeated, viral loads worth of exposure. They’re 21 and 19, both in excellent health. They should be fine. But as we now know, this virus is capricious. I don’t want to keep them at home when they want to be there. I also don’t want to spend my fall worrying about them, plotting what I would do if they got hospitalized and I needed to go to them.

But that’s the crisis tomorrow. In the meantime, Bill’s on hospital service again this week. This never happens during the summer, but then again, COVID-19 never happened during the summer. He’s not on the COVID ward, but yesterday his duties involved a trip to the ER, which is pretty much COVID Central. So, not great. But he comes home each day in good health and he leaves each morning after running for miles and miles. We don’t exactly get used to it. But I, at least, have learned to live with his risk in the background of my days.

I suppose that’s my model for the fall, and my boys. Fret a lot and often at first. Then, loosen my grip, and allow it to slide it to the background, just one more noise in the low hum of threat all around.

Week 10: Memorial Day

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Photo by Aaron Schwartz on Pexels.com

Our street organized a COVID-style, Memorial Day barbeque last night: bring out your own chairs to the sidewalk, sit at least six feet apart from your neighbors, slap on a mask, and remove it only long enough to eat the food you brought from your own home.

I was so excited about this I looked forward to it all day. But as with many things lockdown-related, the anticipation and the experience itself were hardly universal in my household.

I first sensed trouble when it was time to grab dinner. Bill, the boys and I had set up our chairs; Sarah was still inside, doing a dance class on Zoom. As the boys headed in to get the falafel boxes I’d picked up for them earlier in the day, I asked if they could also bring out one for their father. He looked so relaxed and happy sitting there in that chair. His life — treating COVID patients, worrying about treating COVID patients — has been so stressful these last few months. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, not to break this spell?

But the boys, striding up the walk, refused.

“It’s okay, Con,” my husband said, getting up. “I can do it.”

But all I could think, watching Liam walk away, was this was the same kid who rode Bill’s bike every day high up into the mountains and down by the ocean and along city streets while his father, who cherishes his bike rides to work, drove his car instead. So I strode after him, yelling that this would not do, that he needed to show respect, that he’d better not, or… or…

Soon I had Bill enraged as well. The younger brother, Eli — an expert at evading responsibility — scooped up his food and slipped back outside. Meanwhile, Liam and Bill and I hollered at each other in the kitchen. Sarah, trying to dance in the next room, slammed the adjoining door, but not before whisper-yelling at us that we were humiliating her in front of her studio.

Finally, I told Liam please, please, please go to your room.

He did so, after throwing a few choice words at us on his way out.

“Oh my God,” Sarah said, sticking her head through the door. “You guys have to stop. Now.”

We didn’t see Liam for the next three hours. He missed the “barbeque,” and another one of our neighborhood, COVID birthday celebrations afterward.

As Bill and I loaded up the dishwasher at the end of the night, I reminded him of how I’d gotten so incensed with our younger son on Mother’s Day. Eli has turned my home office in the garage into his music studio. This is no small transformation either — he practices jazz trombone day and night. I’d asked for the space back for Mother’s Day, and when the time came, I requested that he move my chair back in for me. But he said he was too busy, and anyway, it was enough he’d cleaned up and vacated for the day.

What is wrong, I said, with both these boys, taking our precious possessions as if they were their birthright, not even pausing once to thank us or even remark upon our sacrifice?

This was a parenting fail, we agreed. And it was ending tonight. We started plotting a meeting of the four of us (Sarah being full of her own righteous indignation at her interrupted dance session, deflecting apologies with a blink and a mutter). You defend me to the younger son, I suggested to Bill, and I’ll defend you to the older one.

Then the older one walked in the kitchen.

“I don’t think I was treated fairly,” he said, plopping down on the banquette.

I thought he was treated more than fairly, but I was also glad he was talking and not yelling or cursing at me anymore. I took a deep breath. “Okay,” I said. “Why?”

We started again, around and around. At some juncture — many of the finer points of the argument having become a blur, just 12 hours later — Liam said that Bill and I couldn’t possibly understand what he was going through because our lives haven’t changed at all in the last few weeks.

“I lost my office!” I said.

Okay, he said, he would give me that. But Dad — look at him, the same work routine, nothing changed one iota.

I could hear my voice rising as I reminded Liam about how the very nature of his father’s work had transformed, from a job where he was helping patients in need to one in which every person who walked through his door was a potential lethal threat.

“But he still goes to work every day,” Liam insisted.

“I don’t know why I’m giving my bike up for this,” Bill said, his words clipped and sharp.

“Look,” Liam said. “I lost Africa. I lost my summer internship in D.C. The bike is all I have.”

Oh, I thought.

And the office-cum-studio is all Eli has. And the dancing classes are one of Sarah’s only reprieves from the hellscape that is 10th grade online.

The boys have watched junior year abroad vanish and spring of freshman year evaporate. Liam doesn’t get that summer in the nation’s capital that he’s talked about since high school. Eli’s valiant attempts to learn guitar won’t bear fruit this summer because there’s no sleep away camp, so he won’t be a song leader. And Sarah… well, this isn’t what 16 is supposed to be like. Or should be like, for that matter.

The bike is all he has, I thought. And I started to cry.

“Mom?” Liam shifted in his seat.

“Aww, no, here she goes,” my husband said. “Honey?”

I could really have let loose. All I had to do was think about how a few months, or even a year, lost in your 50s is easily replicable, later on down the line. But the same time lost at my kids’ iconic ages — 21, 19 and 16 — is time gone forever.

At 21, I spent the entire spring semester in Oxford, England, during which I memorized granular details about 19th Century English parliamentary dramas; fell in love and got my heart broken; traveled across Europe and the Soviet Union on my spring break; and made one of the best friends of my life (hello, Orley).

At 19, I walked hand in hand with my first boyfriend across the Berkeley campus, and cemented new friendships at my sorority, and reveled in huge lecture classes where no one knew my name.

At 16, I loved attending my A.P. Euro History classes and writing articles for the school paper and hanging out with friends on the lawn at Westlake Girls School. I hated just about everything else that year, but at least I got to hate it in person.

Meanwhile, my three are home. And though I despair at the thought of what they’re missing, I have to admit to a greedy satisfaction at having them all under our roof again.

My gain. But surely, their loss.

I stopped crying after a sob or two. Liam apologized for his behavior, and thanked Bill for the ongoing loan of the bike. We both told Liam how sorry we are for his losses.

Then he headed back to his room. Time for another phone call with another buddy, who’s somewhere that isn’t here.

I’ve heard from so many friends these days who say their kids are sulking, or angry, or just plain rude. And I know we all know this, but still, it bears repeating: they are grieving. And they have more to grieve than we do.

I hope the five of us can make something beautiful out of this time together, something we will even cherish when we look back on it, years from now. But that’s tomorrow’s judgement. Today we have to muddle through, remembering what should have been, knowing it would have been great.

Day 42: Horizon

May 8, 2020

Photo by Asad Photo Maldives on Pexels.com

I woke up this morning so scared.

Nothing has changed, at least not since yesterday, or the day before, or the day before that. Nothing has changed all that much since the middle of March, when the boys came home from college and Africa, and our daughter’s high school sent the kids home, and Los Angeles went into lockdown. Yes, we’ve had developments and events — a possible coronavirus sweep through our household, a birthday, an anniversary, a vet scare that will go down in family lore. But for nearly two months, our lives and those of many of our friends and family have run on the same, monotonous treadmill We don’t see new people. We don’t go new places. We don’t experience new things, at least, not outside the confines of our house and grocery stores and, for my husband, the clinic and the hospital.

Some mornings, like today, I wake up and that thought is terrifying. I can’t imagine doing this for two more months. I miss all of you so much. I miss the people I know, the bodies I can’t embrace, the smiles I can’t see in person. Even if we connect on Zoom, I miss something as primal as seeing your speech match the movement of your lips.

But I also miss those of you I don’t know, whom I might meet at a friend’s house, or wave to in the Trader Joe’s parking lot (“You go first,” “No, you”).

I miss — a lot — going into See’s Candies on Sepulveda at National, paying for one chocolate and getting two because everyone who walks in the door is offered a sample (and did you know, if you don’t want the sample they offer, you can ask for a different one?). Also, I miss the ladies who work there, forced to wear anachronistic white dresses with black trim that float me back to my childhood at these same stores in the Valley. Those ladies know all about my two-for-one tricks, but they never so much as lift an eyebrow, only ask me if I’d like a coupon for next month’s promotion with today’s purchase.

The store’s been closed since mid-March. I wonder, do they miss the ridiculous uniforms? The light scent of milk chocolate? Me?

I’m also scared to stop the quarantining. I’ve only done two big marketing trips since mid-March. A couple days after the first one, I got sick. Three days after the second one, I had a relapse. Probably, it was coincidence. But the fear grounds me in my house. I try to imagine doing something as ordinary as submitting to an afternoon at Third Street Promenade with my daughter. I used to think there were few things I enjoyed less than spending our hard-earned money and my precious time at Brandy Melville, Urban Outfitters, PacSun and the like. But now I know there is — being unable to even imagine going there again in the future.

That’s not all that scares me, though.

The boys are talking summer plans and I can’t stop remembering how radically different today’s plans are from those of February. Okay, I bargain with the universe, I dealt with a revised spring. I can handle an upside-down summer. But can you please give them back their fall?

No answer.

I see that it takes every bit of pluck my daughter can summon to stick to an academic schedule and prepare for A.P. exams, in this nether-zone of quarantine. I fear what it will require of her, and what it will take from her, if she must continue this way when 11th grade starts in August.

I’m scared that we can’t remain a stable society when a quarter of us are out of work.

I fear the salary cut that may be coming for my husband, because people are losing not just their jobs but their health insurance; at his clinic and at the hospital, aside from the COVID-19 patients, the rooms and hallways are emptier than usual.

And the fear that underlies it all: I lack faith in the President and his administration to do what is best for the nation. Even writing this makes me sad. I can hardly believe it’s true. But the image, coming into clearer focus every day, of a ship without a captain, banging recklessly about at sea, leaves me almost breathless with an existential terror.

Maybe that’s the problem. I’m trying to gaze through a telescope, when what I need to do is peer down a microscope: this house, these kids, that husband, our dog, these friends, and family, and neighbors. Only what’s right here, right now, no more and no less.

The trick to finding calm and sanity, the one that eluded me today, is to stay present. So present that literally, there’s hardly any future to behold.

Because the future — yikes.