So far, about 80 percent of U.S. universities have announced their plans to forge ahead with some sort of in-person or hybrid fall semester, a decision that requires equal amounts on-the-ground adaptation and magical thinking. We’ve already seen glimpses of how it’s likely to go. At Clemson University, a couple weeks of football practice back in June yielded 23 players who tested positive for covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. A college town in Iowa saw infections surge 270 percent in the last two weeks in June, mostly among 19-to-25-year-olds. As of late July, the University of Georgia had confirmed 390 cases among staff and students.
With those kinds of numbers, I suspect that it’s only a matter of time before the virus burns through the dorms and the dining halls this fall. What manner of wellness commitments could keep college freshmen from kissing at overcrowded parties? The other day, my husband remarked, “If you’re sending your kid to college this fall, you have to acknowledge that there’s a really good chance they’ll get sick.” It’s the brutal truth that made both Harvard and USC announce plans to switch to an entirely online school semester.
Even with those misgivings, I blindly plunged ahead, buying the plane tickets and helping my daughter pick which winter boots would fit in her suitcase. I wasn’t sure how Ella’s college in Utah was going to keep students safe, beyond hoping they had really terrible social lives. I wasn’t sure whether the fall semester was even going to happen. And yet we’d been on this train hurtling toward college for so long that we didn’t know how to get off.
Ella’s been so focused on her post-high school next steps that she didn’t even bother to attend her drive-through high school graduation ceremony in May. I reminded her of the sunk cost of the $65 cap and gown and the value of having this weird, sad story to tell for the rest of her life, but in the end she didn’t have any more cares to give. Mentally she’d already moved on. And we’ve had to move on with her.
Here’s the truth: To live with an 18-year-old under your roof is to navigate a thousand daily interactions that remind you that your kid doesn’t want to live with you anymore. Ella’s end game right now is total independence from us, and ours is to help her become an adult, not just adult-ish. We stumble every day over what that means. Do we set a curfew? Force her to load the dishwasher? Scold her for not wearing a mask as assiduously as she should? Give her unwanted advice? It’s an awkward limbo that is probably universal among teenagers and their parents but made more difficult by a pandemic.
When the stay-at-home orders first hit, I was secretly delighted. Here was a gift for the parents of teenagers: Our children were legally obligated to hang out with us! Amid all the horror in the world, that unexpected revival of pizza-and-movie nights felt like a golden period for my family. The four of us, together! Playing Codenames and watching “Live, Die, Repeat”! And then one day Ella told us she was going to work at the ice cream shop but actually went hiking with the boyfriend we’d forbidden her from seeing during the shutdown. That’s when I realized that the golden period was only a golden period for me. For as good as our relationship is — and I think ours is probably as good as most — Ella is ready to leave home. More than ready.
Back in March, the university in our college town shut down and sent all the students home. On a walk, Ella and I watched freshmen moving out of their residence halls, shoving their mini fridges into their parents’ SUVs. “Which is worse,” I asked her, “having coronavirus happen during your senior year of high school or your freshman year of college?”
“Freshman year of college,” she said immediately.
At the time her own freshman year still shimmered intact in a distant future where, we presumed, covid-19 wouldn’t matter anymore. Message from nearly five months in the future: It still matters. According to one recent survey, about half of graduating high school seniors say the virus has changed their plans for what to do after high school. They’re postponing college because they can’t afford it anymore, or looking for work because families with faltering incomes depend on them.
We’re among the privileged who can still afford to send our kid off to college. And until recently, we assumed that would be the plan. But something happened when Ella registered for classes a couple of weeks ago. There were not enough seats in the hybrid in-person classes that everyone was vying for, leaving her only an array of asynchronous remote courses that nobody else wanted, either. We all finally realized that even if the dorms were open, the virus had already done its damage. Whatever vision she’d had for her freshman year of college, this wasn’t it.
So she decided at the 11th hour to take a gap year. Right now it’s not entirely clear what that will look like for her — she’s currently scrambling to apply for jobs, research volunteer opportunities and figure out housing options — but one thing is certain in her mind: She’ll be moving out of the house, somewhere, by September.
This pandemic has given parents a series of impossible choices, and when your kids are quasi-adults, the choices become theirs, too. That doesn’t mean I don’t worry that she’s jumping off the train. What if she decides not to go back to college? What if she can’t get a job? What if she ends up getting sick anyway?
I can’t guarantee that things will turn out okay. All I can do is hope for the best and let her build a brave new life without me, for as long as she can. And leave her a mega-supply of hand sanitizer.
Melody Warnick is a freelance writer and the author of “This Is Where You Belong: Finding Home Wherever You Are.” She lives with her family in Blacksburg, Va.