MILWAUKEE — Laurie and Scott Dubin, along with their daughter Lindsay, stood outside a rented RV recently with a heap of luggage.
They were about to start the 2,000-mile drive from the San Francisco Bay Area to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Lindsay would start her freshman year at her dream school in the middle of a pandemic.
“I hope school isn’t canceled from Saturday until then,” Laurie Dubin had said earlier that week.
Classes are scheduled to start Sept. 2. Her fear was more than a mother’s intuition. Three days into their road trip, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill canceled in-person classes. On the fourth day, Michigan State and Notre Dame also backed off plans.
“We are in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and I’m getting very nervous,” she texted Aug. 18.
Across the country, college students and their families are weighing the risk of contracting the virus against the possibility of falling behind on college plans.
Another Bay Area family had arrived at a different decision than the Dubins. Julie Fingersh’s freshman son, who was also slated to attend UW-Madison, decided to defer his admission.
He didn’t know what he would do in lieu of college, but his mother was sure of one thing: No institution — anywhere — could claim it had a way to control the spread of COVID-19.
“We went into this wanting to make a leap of faith,” Fingersh said. “It just became clear that there is no way to manage it.”
In Iowa, Aidan Black, an incoming UW-Milwaukee musical theater student, had gone over his options. He could stay with his plans, take a year online, go to community college or just bag the year. He decided to come to Milwaukee and take the risk.
“I’m kind of at a point with it where I’m like if I don’t go now, I’m not going to go at all,” he said.
In Milwaukee, Tyler Reaker, a mechanical engineering graduate student at Marquette University, didn’t feel he had such flexibility, because he also teaches multiple lab courses.
Despite the university announcing earlier that month that it would modify plans to provide more online options where possible, all of Reaker’s classes, as a student and as a teaching assistant, were in-person. Caught between his roles as a student and as an employee, he found he had few choices and little power.
“In some ways, I am disposable to the school,” he said.
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Specific questions, vague answers
Students like Lindsay Dubin and Aidan Black still hope for some semblance of the campus experience they are paying so much for. Others actually feel safer on campus — and perhaps less of a threat to vulnerable relatives. Still others rely on a university for employment or research work.
But there are students who are planning to stay away, whether it’s because of safety fears, an inability to get a visa or an unwillingness to move far from home. Those students may study entirely online, paying the same tuition as they would have for the in-person experience.
Or they may decide that the stripped-down and sanitized experience — online or in-person — is worth neither the money nor the risk. Some simply won’t be able to afford it now, because of COVID-19-related furloughs or unemployment in their families.
“Frequently asked questions” sections of university websites are often a bit vague because the situation is so fluid. In online comment sections and livestreamed town halls, many parents and students bristle at the lack of direct answers and granular details.
“It’s just very nerve-wracking to send your child off to college not knowing what’s going to happen,” said Dubin, who has “a lot of trepidation” — and lots of questions — despite her daughter’s enthusiasm.
Would they make it to the end of the semester? If not, how would Lindsay get home? What happens if she gets sick and needs to be quarantined, or worse, hospitalized? Where, specifically, would students be quarantined? Would Lindsay be allowed to take off her mask in her dorm room if her roommate is still waiting on her first COVID-19 test result? Would the university health center have weekend hours? Would she run into issues getting information about her daughter’s medical condition?
And then there’s the simple but important question of the student experience. What would a virtual sorority rush be like?
Reaker, the Marquette graduate student who teaches four labs each week, also has questions.
Would he be trained on how to teach safely during a pandemic? What happens when there’s an outbreak? How would he navigate moving the labs online? Would the shift be as chaotic as it was in the spring, despite having more time to plan?
“I just think it’s going to be a huge mess,” he said.
Not if, but when
Many families say they have little expectation that colleges will stay open as planned through the entire semester. For them, the question of transferring everything online or closing entirely was not if, but when.
They question whether all students would really control their behavior. Whether they’d keep their distance, keep wearing masks and — perhaps most of all — avoid parties.
Fingersh imagined what she called the best-case scenario: Her son waking up in the morning to don a mask, walking to the nearest dining hall to get a grab-and-go breakfast, making his way back to his dorm room, opening up his computer, throwing on his headphones and starting a day of online classes, his roommate sitting six feet away, doing the same.
“How do you connect with people when you’re wearing a mask all day long?” Fingersh said. “Freshman year is hard enough as it is and being away from home is hard enough as it is, but to do it under this specter of constant anxiety and constant uncertainty was just not the feeling we wanted him to have.”
There are some students who’ll have no choice but to live as Fingersh imagined.
Students like Nathan Wiley, a philosophy graduate student who lives just off Marquette’s campus, in the neighborhood where many upperclassmen live and, normally, party.
Wiley is uninsured. So is his partner, who lives with him and has underlying health conditions. She still has to go out for work, so Wiley will stay home as much as possible to minimize the risk. He took out a $2,000 loan to outfit a home office.
“I’m lucky that both the courses that I wanted to take and need to take to fill my M.A. requirements were being offered online,” he said. “It would have been really hard to focus, having to go on campus. I probably would have reconsidered my enrollment status for this year.”
‘I’m not too worried’
Black, the UW-Milwaukee freshman, is one of many students for whom the excitement of going off to college overwhelms any questions he has about logistics.
“For the health side of it, I’m not too worried about it,” Black said. “I feel like the school is doing a really good job with trying to keep a normalcy to it while also keeping everyone safe.”
He knows things will be different and is willing to live according to UW-Milwaukee’s rules. His plan is to build a group of friends that believes the same. He’ll avoid students who make risky decisions.
Black opted to live with a roommate because that costs about $1,000 less than having a private dorm room. When he thinks through what an average day would look like, the questions arise.
He’d wake up and get some breakfast to go. Would other students be congregating in line when he arrived, also trying to grab a bite before class? Would he have to go back to his dorm to eat? Or could he sit outside somewhere, maybe with a friend?
Then, he’d begin classes. Would his vocal class be as effective? It’s completely online due to the risk ensemble singing poses to viral spread. Would he have to wear a mask in his ballet class?
Normally, he’d have extracurricular events in the evenings. Would there be auditions this fall for the a capella ensemble? Would laser tag club still meet? Would he get to perform in or work on the stage crew of a school theater production?
After the loss of his senior year of high school and a summer spent at home, Black was excited to be social — in a safe way. No maskless parties or large social gatherings, but, “(I’ll be) socializing as much as I can,” he said.
To that end, parents and to some extent university officials, too, can do little more than hope students make the right calculations once they get to school.
Dubin, for one, believes in her daughter; Lindsay is responsible and resourceful. But her mother knows the social pressures will be strong, and that she can’t control what other students will do.
In a surreal 2020 version of a college care package, she packed Lindsay a “quarantine bag” with extra clothes, a thermometer, Tylenol and Advil and a $30 oximeter to measure her blood oxygen level. There was only so much she could do to prepare her daughter for the unknown.
“I’m just putting my hands up in the air and saying, ‘It’ll be what it will be,'” she said.
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: COVID at UW Madison: Students restart in dorms, with fall in doubt