Quiet on the campus where I spent my freshman year.

This is a topic that is personal to my family, but I don’t think it’s unique. 

Believe it or not, Young Miss Weisman, who was born three months after Dodger Thoughts was founded in 2002, is headed out of state to college this fall. At least, that’s what we thought a month ago. 

In the COVID-19 era, that is very much up in the air. Even as planning is underway for staggered, piecemeal reentries into society in the coming months, colleges pose a singular challenge, not unlike baseball teams but with arguably higher stakes. 

Colleges are conceived in a sense to be human petri dishes (or something like that — I know nothing about science), bringing together different cultures (reminder: I know nothing about science) into a confined locale. The entire experience, from classrooms to dorm rooms, is designed for different groups of people to mix together at close range. It’s practically a 24/7 ballgame. 

And if I can generalize, for no group is this mix more important than college freshmen. As you go through an undergraduate career, you gain more independence, and the campus setting itself becomes less integral — maybe only slightly, maybe by a lot. But the campus, and the interaction it breeds among people and places, is as vital for an incoming freshman as anyone. Call me biased, but there was no time in my life as rich as my freshman year of college. 

Now, schools do have one advantage over sports. They can actively live online, and not in the sense of just showing old highlights or computer simulations. They can offer living and breathing online classes, as Young Miss Weisman (12th grade), Young Master Weisman (10th grade) and Youngest Master Weisman (sixth grade) are taking now. Though these are not as good as the real thing, I’m not looking a gift horse in the mouth. They’re a pretty healthy alternative to all the Animal Crossing the kids are playing in their more copious spare time. 

But my kids’ schools didn’t have to go digital until spring was approaching, with the majority of the academic year underway. Even Youngest Master Weisman, who started middle school just this past August, had the advantage of an orientation and seven months on his new campus with his new classmates, teachers and leaders. He may be home, but he can have a bare-bones Proustian sense of what the school is like. 

Right now, a 2020-21 college freshman has no such foundation. When sheltering in place began, Young Miss Weisman’s biggest heartbreak was that the best part of her senior year, the part that would reward all her hard work, the part that she would most savor, was being wiped away — school performances, graduation, farewells with friends, all of it. That has since been surpassed by the fear that she is going to have to begin her freshman year of college, which she has been looking forward to so fervently, on her laptop. As a student who has planned for theater to be part of her double major, this is particularly problematic. 

Please note: I know this is a first-world problem. This is not life and death. In fact, my family has so much to be grateful for, with only one relative so far whose health has been compromised because of the coronavirus, that I hesitate to even write this post. But I write about the personal here, and I do think it’s a compelling problem. 

So what happens now? While colleges are consumed with what to do about their students, few have a plan. The Wall Street Journal captured the state of uncertainty in an article Monday:  

… When and if students do arrive at school this fall, classrooms, quads and cafeterias are likely to look and feel different. States may continue to limit the size of gatherings, which would dictate maximums for how many students can be in a lecture hall or dining room. Students could sit in classrooms separated by three or four seats. Older professors, more vulnerable to the coronavirus, may teach remotely. …

… A working paper by two Cornell University sociology professors shows how closely intertwined students are and how easy it would be for the virus to spread on a campus.

Using course enrollment data, they found that during a given week the average student shares a class with more than 500 other students—4% of the student body. But 87% of students are connected through two steps, and 98% are three steps removed via shared classmates. Keeping classes smaller slows the spread, they found, but only slightly. …

Cal State Fullerton became one of the first colleges or universities to announce that fall classes will be online, as the Los Angeles Times reported, which is a valid choice that doesn’t leave kids high and dry in their academics. But man, I don’t know what to tell you — I just find it so depressing, particularly for freshmen. 

Stanford, among other schools, is considering postponing the start of its freshman year until January, as the Stanford Daily reports, running a winter-spring-summer academic calendar, and that has a great deal of initial appeal for me. For one thing, it’s safe at a time when it’s still very possible we’ll be entering a second wave of coronavirus confrontation, no matter how much improvement we see in the summer. And it offers much more hope for preserving the freshman year experience.  

But even this is problematic, because there’s no guarantee that campuses will be safe in the depths of winter as 2021 begins. I also wonder about what the domino effect would be of this kind of delay. 

One friend and colleague had what I thought was a great suggestion, which was to that colleges should only invite freshmen on campus during first quarter or semester, for precisely the reasons I’ve outlined above. There is no group for whom distance learning at the university level is more fraught. By only having freshmen, you sacrifice a dimension of the college experience, but you can spread them out and keep them more safe. No doubt, a majority of stakeholders would object, but based on the experiences I’ve had both as a student and a parent, I think the idea has merit. I’d like to think if I were a parent of a college upperclassman, I’d consider it. 

There’s one more option on the table for freshmen, which is taking a gap year and deferring the start of college until Fall 2021. In any other time, this could be an exciting opportunity, but in a world that still might be largely shut down, what opportunities would there be? Community service is something to consider, assuming all the necessary precautions. 

Ultimately, this is not a situation that incoming college freshmen have very much control over. By and large, they have made their college decisions, and when each of those colleges announce its plan, it will be up to those freshmen to take it or leave it. I imagine ours will take it, no matter what. And again, we’re sincerely lucky to have that option.

I still can’t help feeling for her.