In the coming days and weeks, millions of parents in the United States will be sending their child to college in a pandemic, whether for in-person classes or a virtual hybrid. Few parents have made this decision lightly, of course. And for some it was their child’s decision, not theirs. Separating from kids going to college may be hard enough for some, but the coronavirus crisis has kicked that up many notches, leaving a lot of parents anxious and unsure how to manage their fears and appropriately parent young adults.
San Francisco-based psychologist Juli Fraga says the psychological pain that comes with separating from our children can be a complicated feeling, and in a dangerous time, we may be inclined to hold on tighter or micromanage. “As long as we direct that energy outwards,” Fraga says, “we’re likely to struggle, because we’re trying to ease our pain by controlling our child’s experience.”
Here are some healthy ways parents who are sending kids to live on college campuses can cope.
Have the safety talk
Before your kids leave for school, sit down and have a heart-to-heart talk, putting yourselves on the same page about such issues as hand sanitation, wearing masks and not engaging in risky behaviors like going to bars, parties or other crowded places where it’s difficult to maintain six feet of physical distance.
“This is going to be one of those talks nobody wants to have but needs to have,” says Waleed Javaid, director of Infection Prevention and Control at Mount Sinai Downtown in New York City. “It has to do with cause and effect and explaining to kids that their actions affect not only them but people around them.” He adds, “We need to have community thinking to get out of this.”
What’s the best way to tackle this conversation? Fraga suggests viewing yourself as a partner rather than the one in charge. “Collaboration can prevent the conversation from turning into a power struggle,” she says. Instead of laying down the law, invite your child’s cooperation by asking what he or she thinks is the right thing to do and how to go about it.
For parents whose kids may be risk takers, Miami psychotherapist Whitney Goodman says one way to guide the conversation is to ask such questions as What would it be like if you went to a party and got a bunch of kids sick? And What if you got sick and had to miss two weeks of school and possibly come home? “Try to find out what their motivation is,” Goodman says, “and then work with that.”
Know the university’s plans
Most colleges and universities have multistep covid-19 protocols. Some are asking students to use a health-monitoring app to track possible symptoms daily, and many are providing testing, contact tracing and quarantine housing in the event of illness. Understanding these procedures can be a comfort to parents, since their child will know what to do if they contract the virus. Connie L. Carson, vice president for student life at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., says that every day, students are expected to use the LiveSafe app, which has a health check-in process.
“If they have any issues or symptoms,” Carson says, “then they are instructed to shelter in place and contact the Student Health Center for a telehealth appointment and instructions for next steps.” From there, students may be tested for the coronavirus and may be isolated if they test positive; then contact tracing kicks in for anyone exposed. This triggers quarantines and referrals for testing.
Visiting a school’s covid-19 resource page may put your mind at ease, particularly if officials are following recommendations for higher education administrators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you’re concerned the school is not, call to discuss. (A few colleges have pivoted to online learning after outbreaks on campus at the start of the semester.)
Valerie Weitzner wanted to be sure her daughters — Zoe, a rising senior at the University of Pennsylvania, and Gillian, a rising sophomore at Duke — would be eligible for medically supervised quarantine housing for students who contracted the virus, even if they lived off campus. She was at first concerned that Duke’s quarantine space might be only for students living on campus, which made her uncomfortable. But when she got confirmation that it would include students living off campus, which Gillian is doing, it put Weitzner’s mind at ease.
Weitzner, who lives in Atlanta, says she was “slightly more nervous” than her husband about the prospect of letting their daughters go back to school for the fall. But ultimately she believes they will be safer in Pennsylvania and North Carolina than they would be in Georgia, where coronavirus cases spiked dramatically over the summer. She’s also comforted by the fact that these schools have the resources for ample testing and contact tracing, and both are affiliated with large academic hospitals for students who become seriously ill.
One of the best ways to cope with long-term stressful situations is to be good to yourself: Eat right, exercise daily, get seven to eight hours of sleep a night and work with your co-parent to be on the same page when addressing pandemic-related challenges. This may mean not reading the news headlines more than once a day and minimizing social media use, particularly if you’re on the parents’ Facebook page for your child’s college, where both good information and high drama can intermingle.
And instead of burdening your child with your worries; look for emotional support from friends who are good listeners, a therapist or mindfulness meditation apps. “Mindfulness tools can help calm our nervous system, which can lower the body’s stress response,” Fraga says. “This helps decrease symptoms of anxiety. And mindfulness also reminds us that everything, even suffering, is temporary, which can bring emotional relief during trying times.”
Prepare for a different kind of homecoming
When your child returns from school, whether by commercial flight or car, check your state department of health’s travel restrictions, particularly if your child is returning from an area with significant community spread. (D.C. and states such as New York have issued precautionary 14-day quarantine requirements.) And, hard as it may be, be sure to wear masks when you’re indoors together for the first 14 days.
Kathleen Varnes, an emergency medicine specialist at Baton Rouge General Hospital, is not in an area with quarantine requirements for people traveling from other states. In cases such as these, and if there is not someone in your home at high risk for illness, Varnes suggests simply using the same precautions you would if your child had the flu: Practice lots of hand washing, don’t share utensils, and don’t let them eat out of the serving bowl or touch the same utensils as you. Serve them on a dish that nobody else touches. Once they finish eating, have them wash their own dish, glass and utensils right away or place them directly in the dishwasher.
“I don’t think they need to be like a prisoner inside their house,” Varnes says, “but use common sense. If they could have their own bathroom that would be good. Wash hands going into the bathroom and coming out. Make sure your toothbrushes are on opposite sides of the sink. ... Wipe down light switches and door handles daily.”
Coping may also mean being emotionally prepared to see your child come home sooner than you thought. Many schools, such as St. John’s College in Annapolis, have recently changed plans and will go 100 percent online because of rising cases in the area and a shortage of coronavirus tests. Other schools in and around the Washington region that are planning to start virtually include Georgetown University, American University, George Washington University, and Dickinson and Lafayette colleges in Pennsylvania.
Such developments may disappoint students and parents alike, but these unprecedented times call for safety first, a willingness to let go and full hope for an improved spring semester.
Renée Bacher is an independent journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and the magazines Parents and Prevention.
Design by Michael Johnson.