“Do you want us to help you move in or do you think you can do it yourself?” I asked my son the other day as we were organizing his twin XL sheets and bath towels. Our youngest is going to be a freshman in college in the same town his sister will be a senior in college–different schools but separated by a few miles.
We remember the daughter’s move-in day three years ago. We both took the day off, moved maybe two boxes of stuff (the upperclassmen of the college negotiated the rest), and we stood there trying to find something to do. She was busy with tasks that morning–hall meeting, lunch with her roommate, and team meeting to start the soccer season. She didn’t need us, so we gave her a hug and drove back home with the rest of the day to do what we wanted.
But my question to him was less about the experience with my daughter and more about the logistics of starting (and returning to) college during a pandemic. I wasn’t sure if it made sense that we all be there, even if we were wearing masks. Sweating, talking, (maybe a little crying) and getting in close proximity to each other would happen whether we wanted it to or not. Because we still have weeks before classes start, we decided that we will wait until later in the summer to determine what our plans would be. Unless things change drastically, he will be on campus, but he may be moving in without our help.
As an educator who is planning what she is doing to teach incoming first-year students and as a parent who is planning what her own kids will be doing to start another academic year, I can tell you I don’t have “the answer.” I know for some parents, what their students will do–live on campus or off, take online classes or on-campus classes–will come down to family needs.
While I want my kids to have some sense of normalcy after being at home for several months, I know that there will be nothing normal about the fall semester or even the spring. Thus, this is our roadmap to navigating these unchartered waters:
- Follow the institution’s policies and practices for safety. If your college asks you to wear a mask when you are near other people, do it. If the college asks that you don’t congregate in large groups or to go outside for events, then please do it. This is about not only your safety but the safety of others. I will be wearing a mask and practicing good hygiene when I teach or interact with others on campus, and I do this so that I can minimize any impact on others.
- Prepare to use technology for classes. My institution is preparing to be face-to-face with physically-distancing guidelines and masking. Students will be split into smaller groups to be able to make this work. This means that we will be relying on technology to deliver course content and assignments. Most students are used to these additional requirements and have the tools and habits needed. But other students may be challenged at first by the need for wifi, a good, quality laptop or tablet, and the time management skills to stay on top of their courses. Check with your student to see what they need to start the semester off on the right foot; many institutions are preparing a list of recommendations for laptops, webcams, and similar technology. You may also want to think about what your student needs in terms of visual reminders of the work they need to do. I have seen too many students forget they need to log into their online course or space out and fail to submit an assignment. Sometimes this is because they are not in a routine of logging in and completing work before it is due. When you decide what technology your student needs, also get them a good, old-fashioned wall calendar to track their work.
- Communicate with faculty and staff if your situation changes. I am planning my courses to be flexible with due dates and class attendance (if we are able to be face to face), but I will expect students to let me know as soon as they can if something happens that keeps them from attending, logging in, or doing the work. These changes include having to go back home to care for a relative or picking up extra shifts at work to cover expenses. I also expect my own kids to let their professors or their Resident Assistants know if they or someone in their circle of contact gets sick.
- Find ways to socialize safely. I don’t want people isolated or lonely, but I do know that for now we can find ways to stay connected and interact with others. In fact, finding ways to create meaningful experiences with others will be necessary for our mental and physical health. While it may be difficult to let go of the big events and parties, it will be necessary for the health and safety of the campus.
- Take care of your health, both physical and mental. If you feel the least bit sick, see a health professional immediately. If you are feeling sad or depressed, talk to a counselor. I would rather my own kids be cautious and find out it is just allergies or a vitamin deficiency rather than wait for symptoms to get worse.
- Check in regularly. I am not a parent who expects my kids to text or call every day, but in light of the ever-changing environment during this pandemic, I am going to ask that we get a regular check-in so we know things are going well and that they don’t have any concerns.
- Reach out to support when you need something. This is advice I share with my first-year students: They cannot expect to do everything by themselves. Now more than ever, we need to be working together to make sure we are all supported during this time. This goes for my own kids. They should be talking to the appropriate staff or calling the appropriate office to get the help they may need. Grades sliding in a math class? See the tutoring center or the professor. Unsure of how to handle a conflict with a roommate? See the office of residence life or the Resident Assistant. Of course, they can reach out to their parents as well for support.
Am I disappointed at the prospect of not helping my youngest kid move onto campus for the first time? Of course. I am also disappointed that his senior year was cut short and that my daughter’s summer internship was cancelled. But I know that there are some things more important than a temporary state of sadness about what I had hoped would happen. If both my kids are going to go back to campus and have any chance of making it through safely, I need to prepare them to expect to follow the guidelines and keep in touch.