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Off to College, but for How Long?

9 pointers for when living rooms become campuses again, or stay that way.

Eric McLean/Unsplash
Source: Eric McLean/Unsplash

Ideally, colleges can do a better job than many K-12 schools in keeping students, teachers and support staff COVID-free on campus or at the least prevent widespread infection. Finding the right mix of protections is near impossible given the insidious and unpredictable nature of the virus. As parents and students make last minute decisions, colleges work furiously to unravel the complex logistics.

To complicate matters, if a student is coming to campus from a highly infected state, a designated week or two-week quarantine may be required in his dorm room with all meals delivered—especially challenging for freshmen who may be anxious about leaving home for the first time, unfamiliar with their new surroundings, and wanting to make new friends.

Once back at school, there’s no way to know how long students will remain on campus. Some colleges moved all classes online, while others set up hybrid programs allowing for small classes to meet in person, but large seminars to be attended virtually from dorm rooms, other living quarters, or libraries.

JAMA study recommends rigorous testing

A study reported in Journal of the America Medical Association Network (JAMA) assessed how testing might help prevent the virus spreading on residential college campuses. Using a “hypothetical cohort of 5000 students including 4990 (99.8%) with no SARS-CoV-2 infection and 10 (0.2%) with SARS-CoV-2 infection,” the findings suggest that students with or without symptoms be tested every two days to reduce the likelihood of an on-campus outbreak. The model suggested that “individuals receiving a positive test result (true or false) and those exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms would be moved from the general population to an isolation dormitory, where their infection would be confirmed, where they would receive supportive care, and from which no further transmissions would occur.”

Can colleges get the tests they need, and how expensive will they be? How do colleges isolate students who test positive? Even with consistent testing, students live in close proximity; they socialize, eat in communal dining areas, and often study in groups, in and out of the classroom.

When it comes to college this fall, be it on or off campus, uncertainty is a given. Cases of COVID-19 on campus are bound to happen. Sad to say, it’s a good bet that your college-age young adult will be back home in his childhood bedroom where he has been since last March when colleges shut down and sent students home to finish classes remotely.

Parents and students will need a healthy dose of resilience and flexibility in this academic year.

Looking at the unknowns and the health and financial tensions they may create, here are some suggestions to encourage peaceful, conflict-free relationships between parents and college students who find themselves together again (or still):

  • Be sensitive to each other’s worries and pressures.
  • Be considerate of online class time or a parent’s work schedule by being quiet if either of those areas is near other activities in the house.
  • Respect a student’s sleep schedule, which likely doesn’t coincide with that of a parent.
  • Because online learning can feel isolating, don’t insist on family time when your young adult would rather be online with friends.
  • Offer less advice and supervision than you did during your child’s high school years.
  • College students, be aware that parents will always be parents, and call up your sense of humor when they treat you like your 10-year-old former self.
  • Honor each other’s privacy and put agreed-upon boundaries in place, particularly those that apply to physical space. Boundaries relate to work areas, bedrooms, food preferences, even your time and how you socialize during the pandemic.
  • Some younger people feel invincible or are risk-takers, making it essential to decide on social distancing rules to protect everyone in the family.
  • Set or reset the stage for pitching in—come up with and assign shopping, dinner, cleaning chores—so no one feels taken advantage of.

When living rooms, bedrooms, and kitchens become college campuses, everyone will want to up the patience level. That’s easier to do if you realize parents and their young adult children are both under stress from health worries and financial upheaval the pandemic has caused.

For more pointers and perspective, see 10 Tips for Living With Your Returning College Student: Parenting takes a whole new form when college students come home.

Copyright @2020 by Susan Newman


Harris, Adam. (2020) “What If Colleges Don’t Reopen Until 2021?”, The Atlantic, April 24.

Newman, Susan. (2010). Under One Roof Again: All Grown Up and (Re) Learning to Live Together Happily. Globe Pequot Press/Lyons Press.

Paltiel, A. David, Zheng, Amy, and Walensky, Rochelle P. “Assessment of SARS-CoV-2 Screening Strategies to Permit the Safe Reopening of College Campuses in the United States.” (2020) JAMA Network Open: July 31.