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Parents of College Students Worry, Should They Stay or Go?

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  • Aug. 7, 2020
  • Tourville, of Wells, Maine, thinks about sending her daughter off to college this month, the same questions keep circling in her mind.

“I worry about her getting sick,” said Ms. Tourville, a children’s book author, whose daughter, Claire Brown, 18, plans to attend Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., a drive that Ms. Tourville has clocked at exactly two hours and 22 minutes away. “How do I know what to do? Will the health staff tell me? Will she tell me? If I go to get her, how will I handle driving there and driving back? Do I unroll all the car windows?”

The usual parental worries — whether a college-bound child will be happy, or productive, or find a suitable major leading to a stable career — are getting sidelined this fall by one overwhelming concern: With coronavirus cases spiking in many parts of the country, will students be safe at school?

More than a quarter of U.S. colleges plan to begin fall instruction fully or mostly online, but many are still opening up their dorms. Some, like Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, are limiting space to those students with housing insecurity or other hardships. Some, like Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., also plan to offer housing to students who fit into a number of defined categories, such as veterans or those with on-campus jobs. Yet other online-only campuses, like the University of California, Berkeley, say they’re still accepting housing applications. And yet, some may change plans at the 11th hour, as the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, did on Thursday, less than three weeks before classes were to begin, with an announcement that it would no longer allow students whose classes are held remotely to move into the dorms.

At many schools, upperclassmen are returning anyway, to off-campus apartments, or fraternity or sorority houses. That leaves parents with the choice of forcing their 20-year-olds to stay home against their will, or allowing them to leave and join their friends, knowing the infection data may not be in their favor.

“This is a situation where you have to pray for the best and be ready for the worst,” said Kelly Hutchison, a retired firefighter and single father living in Chicago. His daughter, Katelyn, is a student at Ithaca College and a member of the school’s track team.

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Mr. Hutchison won’t soon forget the scene in March, when he arrived in North Carolina to watch her run in a national championship track meet and found his daughter and her teammates in tears. The NCAA had just canceled the meet because of the pandemic. Watching Katelyn, 19, break down like that “was one of the most painful things I’ve ever experienced,” he said.

Mindful of what she lost, he’s trying to give her whatever he can this fall. “I’m not 100 percent comfortable” with her returning to her upstate New York campus, he said. “But I’m comfortable enough for her to go back.”

Dr. Sten H. Vermund, dean of the Yale School of Public Health, noted that people under the age of 35, make up 45 percent of the U.S. population, but according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, account for less than 1 percent of Covid-19 deaths, as of Aug. 5.

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