Last semester, as the COVID-19 pandemic closed all UNC System campuses, Samantha Pilot welcomed her son home early from his freshman year at UNC-Chapel Hill. At the time, she felt like the university was on her side. It was expensive and complicated to close the campuses and shift to online-only education for the balance of the spring semester. The fact that the UNC System did it anyway made her feel proud to be part of a Carolina family.
“It was terrifying and saddening,” Pilot said. “Of course we all as parents want our kids to have that typical college experience. But never once did we waver in the position that health and safety were the most important things.”
But now, as North Carolina continues to post record single-day infection rates and hospitalizations, Pilot is wondering how the same university can be planning to bring students back to campus in a month.
“It is not only irresponsible, it is reckless,” Pilot said. “Bringing these kids back and putting them in full-capacity dorms together is morally repugnant. And I am outraged they would even consider this. It is very clearly a money grab for residence cash. They’re risking the safety, the health and perhaps lives of these students, when they don’t need to.”
Will her son return to Chapel Hill or remain at home in Greenville, perhaps taking online courses until pandemic conditions improve? Pilot said it isn’t yet clear.
It’s a difficult decision for parents across the UNC System. Will the schools take the necessary precautions to keep students from infection? Will students abide by safety procedures mandated by their universities? What if the schools reopen, only to close again after a major outbreak? Will their families be risking thousands of dollars in non-refundable housing costs?
Throughout the country, student-athletes who have returned to campuses early for conditioning have already tested positive for the coronavirus in numbers that have halted some practices altogether. And this week at the University of Washington a major COVID-19 outbreak occurred in fraternity houses on its Greek Row, as that school prepares to reopen its campus in September.
Yet some parents say the risks of social isolation, the low quality of online-only offerings and missed opportunities are more dangerous for students than the chance they’ll be infected on campus.
Michael Usey is pastor at College Park Baptist Church in Greensboro. His congregation hasn’t been meeting for in-person worship for months. But last weekend his daughter Hannah, a public health major, moved back to her off-campus apartment to prepare for the fall semester at UNC-Wilmington.
“Hannah needed to go back, I think,” Usey said. “We want her to have as normal a college experience as one can have. She’s trying to get into the nursing program and they’re going to have all the strictest protocols. And I trust her judgment.”
Usey’s wife, Ann, once worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As a family, they’ve discussed how to manage risk, Usey said.
Recently, his daughter took a trip to the beach with friends. She played a little soccer with them, he said, but didn’t join in a large party to which she was invited. “She has to make those choices,” Usey said.
Guilford County’s COVID infection and death rates are higher than Wilmington’s, Usey noted. So living near campus again might not be a greater risk than staying at home with the family. “You do have the feeling that we’re in a giant science experiment right now, which isn’t always comfortable,” Usey said.
Nate, Usey’s 27-year-old son, is pursuing a master’s degree in social work at UNC-Charlotte after serving in the Peace Corps. He’ll intern at a hospital this semester, Usey said. “All kids are risk-takers,” Usey said. “But I think they both know the best strategies and the best protocols for staying safe. I do think there’s a way for our young people to move in the world in the safest way they can.”
“You want to give them something normal”
In six weeks Deonna Kelli Sayed’s son Ibrahim will start his freshman year at Appalachian State. He is her only son, she said, and it’s a strange time for him to be leaving home. But after having his senior year of high school cut short, she feels it’s time for him to forge ahead.
“We sat through orientation and I feel the college is trying as best they can to create conditions that will be safe yet give their students some sense of normality — as much as they can,” she said. “But it’s all unprecedented. No one really knows what they’re doing.”
Living in the dorms will probably be the riskiest thing about his freshman year, she said. “They’re going to be wearing masks in class,” she said. “But in the dorms is I think where there’s going to be the most social interaction.”
And to be honest, she said, it’s college. There are going to be parties. There are going to be risky situations. It comes with the territory.
“I expect that, absolutely,” she said. “I think my son expects that and he expects he’s going to be exposed. But I think that’s true whether or not he goes to campus. The risk of being exposed is going to happen regardless.”
This virus isn’t going away. Sayed said it’s time for people — especially young people at a critical time in their lives — to begin the difficult work of living with the virus while taking all the precautions they can.
Figuring out how to fully embrace the collegiate experience during the pandemic is going to be difficult and different for every student, she said. Campuses could close again after a series of clusters or outbreaks in the fall. If students make it until Thanksgiving break, they might have to quarantine while at home to avoid risking the health of family members — especially those who are older or who have serious medical conditions.
If Ibrahim had to begin his college career with online classes, Sayed said, he probably would have chosen to defer for a year.
That’s what UNC System leaders fear. As students, faculty and staff continue to buck against returning in August, individual chancellors and UNC System Interim President Bill Roper have warned that the universities’ business models can’t sustain the kind of financial losses that would come from masses of students taking a gap year.
“You want to give them something normal right now, something to look forward to,” Sayed said. “We don’t know an end-date on this.”
But that’s precisely the point said Samantha Pilot, who doubts her son will return to UNC-Chapel Hill in the fall. “We may not know exactly when we’re going to have a vaccine,” Pilot said. “But we know from everything we have seen so far what happens when we get this many people — tens of thousands of people — together in one place. We’ve already seen what happens at other schools. We don’t have to know exactly how things are going to work out right now to know the risk we are putting these kids in right now.”