Was Sending Teens to College During a Pandemic a Very Bad Idea?

Two weeks ago, I dropped my daughter off at college for her freshman year. I always knew it would be a hard thing to do but I could never have imagined college COVID-style and the stress it would put on all of us. The land mines these teens are navigating, daily would leave most adults curled up in the fetal position in tears.

College is an even bigger challenge for freshmen. (Twenty20 @Irrmago)

My daughter was exposed to Covid

I woke up Wednesday morning, 2 days after drop off, to my phone lighting up with news reports of a large gathering of freshmen at my daughter’s school. My heart began to race. My stomach sank. Had she been there?

I checked my messages from her. Nothing. I sent her a message. “Seeing a lot of reports of a large gathering on campus. Were you there?” Several hours later (she’s on college-time) she responded, “We were there for like 5 minutes then left.” She added, “there were way too many ppl.”

A swell of emotions bubbled up inside me, disappointment, anger, fear. I needed more information and began peppering her with questions, part momma bear and part Matlock.

What I learned was that the gathering had happened organically. Students had been hanging outside in small groups because there was nothing else to do. One small group came upon another small group and before anyone knew it, including the Public Safety Officer stationed right there, it was a large and unlawful gathering. Most of them had masks on but there was little social distancing.

We knew our teens college experience would be different

As parents, we knew their experience would be very different. The summer was filled with Zoom calls including details of what college, COVID-style, would look like. But the information was often inconsistent and unclear. It was understandable. Nobody has ever done this before.

Unfortunately, the rules weren’t fully made clear until after they got there. Masks must be worn, inside and outside, unless you are alone in your room with your roommate. No guests are allowed in any dorm. No room can be occupied by more than double the number of people who live there. For most, that’s a total of 4.

Students are required to socially distance from everyone other than your roommate, inside and outside. There is no dining in the dining halls. Everything is grab and go, for every meal. Those are just a few of the restrictions.

This is challenging for freshmen

This is a real challenge for freshmen who don’t yet have a crew to hunker down with. At my daughter’s school, there was little to no orientation. What they did have was limited to virtual welcome speeches lacking any practical or useful content during one of the most pivotal transitions in their short lives. There were few, if any, opportunities to connect with other students in their dorm, or even on their floor.

Meetings with RA’s were inconsistent. Some had them, some didn’t, and the ones who did have them had them virtually. I couldn’t help but wonder, if it’s not safe to gather a small group of students on a floor, who already share a bathroom, is it safe for them to be there at all?

The response to the gathering by the school and the community was clear and swift, calling the behavior reckless and selfish. It was, and it’s happening at every school. The on-line judgment of these kids is harsh, and disingenuous. Perhaps I am defensive because my freshman is in the thick of it. But mostly, I feel it’s dishonest and unfair.

Were all these people so perfect in their younger years that they cannot understand the mistakes of these young adults? Let’s at least admit we are not totally sure what our 18-year old selves would do in the same situation.

Socially starved 18-year-olds were brought on-campus, with nothing to replace the normal social activities they should have been engaged in. The shaming is hard to watch and counterintuitive. Now more teens are likely to lie about what they have done and where they have been, and less likely to seek help or testing when they need it, putting communities at greater risk. Basic principles of human psychology seem lacking at the very institutions we normally rely on for this information.

Parents are grateful that teens are back but were any of us really prepared?

I am grateful for all the effort to bring kids back to campus safely, but it is clear no one was adequately prepared for life once they got there. Did we even consider the reality of teens living like this for months? Have we set them up to fail?

Since those first few tumultuous days the students and the administration, at least at my daughter’s school, seem to be doing their part. Most teens are honoring the rules, making the best of it. The administration is owning their failure, stepping up their game, and offering alternatives to sitting alone in a dorm room or roaming aimlessly into unsanctioned social gatherings.

As for me, I suddenly feel like I have dropped my daughter off into a big weird science experiment and the results are pending.

You Might Also Want to Read:

Eleven Ways the Pandemic Might Transform the College Landscape Forever

About Wendy Silver

Wendy Silver is the founder and president of Beyond the Workplace LLC, a boutique HR consulting company specializing in employee relations. She is also a Commissioner on the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women and host of the podcast the PowHER Hour. Wendy is passionate about inspiring, promoting and creating great places to work and is an advocate for women and moms who want to strive and thrive in all areas of living and working. She lives in Needham, MA with her husband and two teens.

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