To college, or not, this fall?

Cartoon image of college students outside campus building wearing masks.
Deciding whether or not to send your child back to college is a personal decision. (Image: Adobe stock; Illustration: Dave Chrisom, Boston Children's)

Whether or not to return to college campus is a question many students and their parents are faced with making in the next few weeks. While some schools have made that decision for families by moving to remote learning only or sending students home, many colleges and universities are leaving the choice up to students and their parents.

As with younger kids, there’s no blanket answer that’s right for everyone. However, unlike school age kids, many college students will be dealing with the additional risks of communal living quarters and dining halls.

So, how do parents weigh the risks and benefits — both physical and emotional — of sending their children back to college? For help, we turned to two experts, Dr. Catherine Lachenauer, director of outpatient clinics in Infectious Diseases at Boston Children’s Hospital and Carolyn Snell, attending psychologist at Boston Children’s.

Assessing the health risks and benefits of college

“When it comes to making a decision about college, there’s no one answer for everyone,” says Dr. Lachenauer. “Parents and students have to look at their own situation and determine the best course of action for them individually.”

Dr. Lachenauer says, in terms of risk, “Direct person-to-person contact, especially in close range, is the primary way SARS-Cov-2 is spread. Thus, the more interaction you have with people who might be infected, especially in indoor areas, and the longer those interactions last, the higher your potential risk. Social distancing — in classrooms, dorms, dining rooms, and other social spaces — plays a really big part in reducing students’ risk.” 

When deciding your own child’s risk on their campus, Dr. Lachenauer  recommends considering the following points:

  • What are the plans for class size and social distancing in the classrooms? Will the students be sharing equipment, such as lab or computer equipment? Dr. Lachenauer says the highest risk classroom situation is full size classes with shared equipment. Small classes in larger spaces, where students can sit at least 6 feet apart and do not share any supplies, is a safer option.
  • What is the college planning in terms of distancing in residence halls? Those that are not at full capacity and have closed their common areas are a less risky option than those that are at full capacity with shared spaces like kitchens and dining areas.
  • What is the plan for meal service? Dr. Lachenauer says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is recommending that schools offer prepackaged meals or grab-and-go options with disposable cutlery if possible. Buffet- or family-style service is higher risk.
  • Where is the school located and what is its relationship to the surrounding community? Attending school in an area of the country that is experiencing a surge may be riskier than an area with lower coronavirus numbers. “If the school is large and integrated into urban area with high number of COVID-19 cases, it may be a higher risk situation than a smaller campus in a more remote geographical area with fewer COVID-19 cases,” says Dr. Lachenauer. However, she notes that even in a small school in a remote location, students coming from other areas of the country could potentially bring the infection in. Many schools are planning for routine testing or quarantining of students on arrival, and some plan to continue intermittent testing throughout the year.
  • What is the plan for students who test positive for COVID-19 or who develop symptoms? Is there a place on campus where they can self-quarantine away from other students?
  • Does the school have a plan in place for contact tracing if students become ill?
  • Does the campus have a health system that is prepared to care for ill students? Are there any plans in place if students need more intensive care?
  • Does the school have a policy or recommendation about off-campus travel by students? “A number of colleges are really discouraging travel off campus,” says Dr. Lachenauer. “Many are encouraging students to stay the entire semester without leaving the campus or immediate area, in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19 geographically.”
  • Does your child have an underlying condition that might put them at greater risk for severe illness from COVID-19? If so, Dr. Lachenauer says the same considerations for social distancing still apply, but with potentially higher consequences.

Assessing the mental and emotional aspects of college life

Ultimately, parents and students need to weigh these possibilities and determine what level of risk they are comfortable with, while also taking the student’s emotional well-being into account.

“For many young adults, living on campus is a rite of passage that is at the very heart of the college experience,” says Snell. “For us as adults, a few months of attending school virtually might not seem like too much time. But for many young people eager to connect with one another and establish their independence, missing a semester of college can feel like an eternity.”

Snell says a lot of teens and young adults have told her they are really starting to feel isolation from their peers and are eager to get back to their lives. “That piece of a student’s well-being should not be discounted,” she says. “The decision about whether to return to campus or not really comes down to a balance of needs. Each student needs to examine their own level of risk, perhaps by talking with their doctor and getting information from their school. Then they can weigh that against the loss of social connection and how it might affect their mental health.”

While parents may not always agree with their child’s decision, Snell says it’s something to talk about together, making sure you listen to their thoughts and desires. She says you may also want to think about how well they adapted when the spring semester was cut short.

“Parents know their own child and what’s most important to them,” she says. “While some kids seem perfectly fine with the remote option, for others, online learning may not be as effective as the classroom, and the loss of social contact could be critical to their well-being.”

Get more answers about Boston Children’s response to COVID-19.

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