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The Precariousness of Fall Semester 2020 and Some Simple Ways to Make It Through

Shari Bender


It’s late August, which means most college kids are back at school, or will be soon.

Pre-pandemic, back-to-school came with its own set of worries. Now, for most of us, pandemic concerns have catapulted us into Next Level worry.

My son, a sophomore living alone off campus, has been back at his East Coast university for two weeks already. We were able to move him in with minimal stress before the influx of on-campus students. He got his campus-mandated COVID test in a timely fashion, and tested negative thank goodness.

With mask firmly in place and COVID-inspired first aid kit under the bathroom sink, I hugged my baby goodbye to wish him well on his truncated fall semester. He's scheduled to be back home at Thanksgiving break, at which time his school will transition to online learning for the remainder of the semester. The in-person restart is planned for February but, as we all know, plans seem to change on a daily and sometimes hourly basis.

Like many of you, I spend my early morning coffee time scouring the news and Facebook groups for any inkling of information that might help guide me and my family through these tumultuous times. I also look for cautionary pieces of news that I inevitably forward to my children, along with a summary text (“just a reminder, wear your mask”) to get the point across. I know they often only read the titles, but somehow I feel comforted by sharing the knowledge.

Less than a week after arriving at college, a friend’s freshman daughter was suspended for breaking the rules. She had not followed social distance protocol, and was suspended as part of a sweep of kids identified as having attended an unsanctioned and unsafe campus gathering. Her parents scrambled to make the eight-hour drive to pick her up. Now she's home, under parental lockdown until her campus disciplinary hearing. In a few days, the large university — known pre-COVID as a party school — will decide her fate for the rest of the semester and school year.

This prompted me to ask myself, what would I do if my child gets suspended? No one likes to think their student will be “that kid,” nor do I. But I can't live in the old carefree bubble I once inhabited.

So, after a discussion with my husband, we shared our thoughts with our son. He needed to know, in official text message form, that his university and his parents had expectations, were trusting him, and that there would be real consequences to any breach of that trust. The consequences from the school were outlined in their 96-page re-opening document, but bottom line — you break the rules, you get sent home.

Of course when you live off campus, like my son, home may be a stone’s throw from campus. In that regard we made it clear to Joe that a suspension would mean he would be coming to our home, not his cool off-campus bachelor pad studio apartment. Joe’s response? The iconic iPhone thumbs up — letting us know he saw and read the text but with “no comment.”

Yesterday’s perusal of the Parents of University Facebook page yielded a maybe not-so surprising piece of news. Not even one day after the first on-campus move-in date at my son’s school, first years had gathered in large groups, ignoring social distance and university guidelines. Like many events these days, someone had video and publicized the rule flouting in a 15-second TikTok. The identification and punishment of those involved is pending.

Unfortunately, I think this scenario will be repeated over and over again as more colleges open up.

Maybe your own student has opted for, or been forced into, online remote learning. I can understand why an institution of higher learning would decide on this approach. I can also appreciate those colleges that have adopted a hybrid in-person/online model to try and salvage some kind of college experience as we know it.

Both options come with risks, mental and/or physical. What can we as parents do to support our students for this coming year?

If your student is at home:

Consider a designated learning space. For my son last semester, this consisted of converting my daughter’s old bedroom into “the Lounge.” Renovations included relocating a beanbag from the family room and purchasing an eight-foot charger. While the actual changes were slight, I knew that door closed meant classes were in session or work was being done. It allowed my son a private space to reclaim a semblance of a freshman year. If you can't spare a whole room, even a private desk area newly decorated with college swag can lend an at-home learning vibe.

If your teen is away:

Discuss different possible events. What if they test positive for COVID-19 while at school? What if a roommate or close friend tests positive? What should they do if they find themselves in an unsafe (no masks, etc.) social situation?

Send them with (or walk them through putting together) a go-bag. Or in this case, a stay-bag full of necessities that can last a full two weeks of quarantine.

Review campus health policy and protocol with them. This may differ depending on whether your student lives on or off campus. Your own proximity to campus will affect logistics (for example, are you close enough to bring them home or deliver supplies).

Set your child’s contact information to Emergency Bypass. This way, even if your phone is on mute/Do Not Disturb, you'll receive sound and vibrations so you won't miss their calls.

Ask for contact information for their roommate, housemate or BFF. My son was required to name a local person as his college emergency contact. He chose a dear friend, to whom I am grateful, and I've saved her contact info so I have a connection to boots on the ground, so to speak.

When our children leave the nest, we want and expect them to spread their wings. However, during these challenging times it's okay, and in my opinion necessary, to take a more active role in our students' college lives. Support is crucial at any age, and together we will get through this.

Shari earned her BA in Communication from Stanford University in 1992 and currently works as Communication and Marketing Director for a large electrical firm on Long Island. Shari is a cat-loving spiritual vegan who is embracing her empty-nesting along with her husband of 27 years. Her musings delight parents on multiple online platforms, including Grown & Flown and CollegiateParent.
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