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.

Day 14: Jody

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The pandemic lockdown has introduced me to a new breed of nightmare – one that thankfully, can never actually come to pass. It’s me, stuck by myself in the house for weeks, with my three young children, simultaneously their mother, their teacher and their primary source of entertainment.

These days, my kids pointedly do their own thing. As I write this in the dining room, for instance, my daughter is a pebble’s throw away in the living room, staring at her phone, silent.

But every time I log onto Facebook, there is Jody, enacting my alternate reality. Jody lives in New Jersey, and is married to Matt, one of my husband’s first cousins. They have two boys, Brennan, age 6, and Finn, age 4 (Jody has allowed me to use the family’s first names). Every weekday, Jody posts an update like this one, from March 30:

Kickin’ off week 3 and day 10 of COVID chronicles. MONYAY! MONSLAY! More like – MONCRAYCRAY! So, we started with yoga and some ‘dance and freeze’. Then moved onto schoolwork. A bestie had a birthday today so we made cards and delivered them. I still remember how to drive. #winning. After lunch we did arts and crafts , puzzles and attempted Mousetrap (I hate that game). Snacking. Lots of snacking. Then I decided it was time to add “The History of Micheal Jackson Music” to our curriculum. We ended the lesson with the FULL Thriller video. #covidchronicles#homeschool#socialdistancing#stayhome#washyourhands#doyourpart#dirtydiana

Just reading all that makes me sleepy. Then I scan through the pictures of the two adorable little boys stretching and earnestly filling in worksheets and coloring cards and making puzzles and playing board games and finally, a video of them jumping up and down to Michael Jackson, and I’m exhausted by proxy.

How does she do it, I wondered? How does she get up each day with a smile on her lips and the world outside her doors inaccessible, and, like so many parents across America these days, face her children — again?

So, I called her up and asked her. Here’s what she said, in an edited, condensed form.

There are two totally different kind of things that I feel I’m living through. I’m living through being the wife and mom stuck at home with her kids, and then I’m living through the pandemic.  Who ever thought, we’d be faced with the statement, “Get ready, in the next week, a lot of people are going to die.” You are almost like waiting to hear who you know, who you love, is going to be diagnosed with coronavirus.

The kids are getting sick of, “Okay, it’s time to sit down and do xeroxed copies.” I try to give teachers benefit of the doubt. No one knows what they are doing. It almost feels like the first time you become a parent, in a way. You’re out of control, you don’t feel prepared. I worry, Am I doing okay by them? Are they learning enough that they can substitute what they would be getting at school?

It’s hard to be in your house, with your four- and your six-year-old, all day, every day. Like, there are the screens. There are games that are appropriate for Brennan at six.  Where he can be online at the same time as friends and they can play together. And of course, all he wants to do is check if Luke is playing, or Brian is playing. So there’s always this begging, begging, begging to be on screens. That has to be controlled. I’m not the type of person that can say, okay, today’s a screen day, and let them be on screens for eight hours. I don’t judge anybody who does it. That’s not me. It’s just — that would really mess with my head.

We still follow my schedule. Brennan has it memorized. He gets up in the morning and he knows. He’s like, “Okay, we start Healthy Body and Soul right after breakfast.” He helps me stay on task. Now when I say it’s time for learning time, he may complain. He may ask for ten more minutes. But he expects the schedule. It’s the same thing at school, the same thing every day. That’s how they operate the best.

Still, when he says, “I can’t do another worksheet,” I say, “Okay, you’ve done enough for today.”

The hard part is never being able to be alone. That’s the hard part.  We have carefully worked out a deal with our regular babysitter who still comes a couple of afternoons and one evening a week so I can get work done. I struggle with this, bringing someone into the house right now, but I honestly can’t work without her and she is making safety her top priority. But, because I’m just upstairs, I can’t really completely disengage.  The boys are constantly running into my room, or I hear them fighting or misbehaving. 

Matt takes over on Wednesday mornings because he starts late in the office. He also helps when he gets home. But still, he gets to get up and go into the office all day when I rarely get a break. I find myself thinking, about him and his work, “Lucky, lucky you. Everybody else’s life has been turned on its head. How lucky are you?”

If we were in this quarantine when I was single with no kids, I would be like, this is awesome. But right now, there is nothing about this that is easy.