Colleges and universities are claiming they can reopen safely, with students acting like mature adults. College professors and parents know differently.
As the father of a rising college sophomore, I am highly conflicted about the wisdom of reopening universities in September. On one hand, my son is thrilled to be going back to his beloved Emerson College in Boston for the Fall semester. But I also know that no matter what I say about masks and eight-feet of space and avoiding parties, he will listen to my sage advice about as much as he listened in his first 19-years. In other words, hardly at all.
Last week, after three months of home isolation and angst, my son got the long-anticipated email: Emerson will indeed reopen this Fall with a “hybrid” combination of live and online classes. The email from the college president painted a rosy picture of all the smart precautions they are taking to ensure it can be done safely. But the one crucial element left out of the email was that the success of this high-risk venture mostly depends on the rational and mature personal discipline of 18-21 year olds. Often under the influence of liquor.
While colleges across the country are sending out similarly optimistic emails about all the “precautions” they will be taking to make campus life safe, professors and administrators will privately tell you it’s a delusional fantasy. Sure, you can limit dorm rooms to two students each, but the hallways and bathrooms are communal, as well as study lounges and, of course, cafeterias, where masking is impossible.
Then there’s the nasty issue of peer pressure. I’m a 63-year old man with a fair amount of self-discipline, yet even I find myself relenting to non-mask social interactions with neighbors who invariably edge from 6 feet away to 4 to 3. Of course, as an adult with nothing to prove, I can back up or withdraw entirely. I don’t have to worry about whether I’ll be teased by my friends or if I look cute to the boy I like. But what happens when classmates and dorm-mates from southern states who have been conditioned by their families to mock mask wearing start to put social pressure on those kids who are trying to do it right? What will your son or daughter do when they go to a “must mask” party only to find that most kids are showing their faces, and your kid is the one who looks like a weirdo? You know the answer: the teenage desire to fit in will prevail, and the mask will lose.
Then there’s frats and sororities – which take all those problems and adds bravado and liquor.
The data is already coming in: teens and young adults are not immune from Covid-19, and it can wreak havoc on even the strongest bodies. Reports from army bases and prisons are showing troubling outbreaks among young, healthy people living in close quarters. If coronavirus can plunder its way through a county jail or prison, which are essentially dorms with bars, what makes you think it won’t happen on a college campus?
The colleges say they will set aside a certain portion of their on-campus housing for students who test positive and need to be quarantined. Okay, but who will nurse them and bring them food when those positive cases turn into serious Covid symptoms? Colleges can barely man their health offices. Who is going to tend to the health of my violently sick student locked in a dorm-turned-ICU when his parents are 2000 miles away?
Then there’s the question of transmission to faculty, which is inevitable. What happens when 3 or 6 or 12 faculty members are suddenly hospitalized (or worse)? What happens when 20 or 40 or 400 college students across the country suddenly turn critically ill in the first few weeks, with some landing on ventilators? What happens when students have to skip class to attend a classmate’s funeral?
Currently infection rates among broad populations seem to be hovering in the 4-7% range. In Boston, the city where my child matriculates, there are 100 institutes of higher education serving some 350,000 college and post-graduate students. If even 2% of them become sick enough to need hospitalization, it would be a healthcare nightmare. If 7,000 Boston students get sick, and only 0.5% of them succumb to the illness, that’s still 35 dead college kids. Just in Boston! Project that out to the approximately 15,000,000 college students in the USA. Are one or two semesters of college worth 1,500 lost college lives?
Look, all of this is speculation, and I’m no epidemiologist. I’m just an anxious dad. I may be wrong and our kids will be fine and thrive. I pray that’s the case. But what if my worst fears are realized, or worse? As a nation we have a bad history of sacrificing our young people in wars that were supposed to be short and relatively bloodless, only to find ourselves thousands of deaths later ruing our blind faith in the public assurances of our national leaders. Do you really trust college presidents and the corprorate Boards they report to to put your child’s health ahead of their bottom lines?
Of course, as a feckless father, I’ll let my child return to college this Fall, because I don’t want my anxieties to stand in the way of his dreams. But if their dreams turn into our worst nightmares, we will have to carry that burden for a lifetime to come.
And then there’s K-12 and childcare. Those are a whole other set of landmines waiting to explode.
Kevin Kelton is a co-host of The More Perfect Union podcast.