The National Center for Education Statistics says there will be about 16.5 million students taking classes at undergraduate institutions this fall, which is down by six percent from a decade ago. Still, that is some four million freshmen, and by my calculation most of them were trying to move in to the dorms at the university where my elder son is starting college this fall. The heat index was somewhere over 110 degrees, but older students pressed into service in those dusty gravel lots remained cheerful and professional under the sun.
To be fair, the university had made the most of move-in, obviously planning the operation like a military campaign to try to minimize the risk of infection, or at least maximize the appearance of minimizing.
An enormous stadium parking lot was the starting point. Everyone stayed in their cars in five or six long lines, until those at the front were released, one by one, with wristbands and a different hang tag for the mirror, to go to another line in another lot. After another wait, still inside their cars, half a dozen families at a time were released to go to a dorm, where they unloaded cars at good social distances, rode elevators up alone, and unpacked their stuff in their rooms.
My son will be there with little to do for ten days before classes start. If I had to guess, that period is meant to see if there is an outbreak of Covid, at which time the university will go to some hidden backup plan and deliver all instruction online. As it stands, his classes are all online but for one, so he pays for and lives in a dorm room in order to take classes on his laptop. If students distance as they should, social life on campus will not be normal.
Classes will continue for two weeks after Thanksgiving but will be online-only after the holiday. The way the university gets around prorating the cost of housing is by saying that if the students want to live in their rooms for those two weeks, they can.
I find all this cynical, dispiriting, and risky. It takes too little responsibility in the name of university finance and puts too much pressure on students and their families. In the age of Covid and unemployment, what is there for many students to do if they take a year off? It would be lost.
All this was on my mind, of course, as we sat in the idling car with its air conditioner struggling to keep up with the heat. That was on top of the usual feelings of having a child leave the house. He is our first. When he asked earlier if I would be ok, I said yes, but I sat there willing myself not to think of the ending of Toy Story 3, or any number of tunes about beloved children, or the poster a friend had made, all those years ago, of my little boy as a character with the Scooby-Doo gang.
When the moment came, sooner than we thought due to lightning and an imminent downpour, it was a pretty easy goodbye. We are proud of him and know his spirit. He has wanted independence for years and has become in many ways his own man. My identity is not completely tied to his or to who he was years ago, when I could put my palm on his cheek and hold it there and he would instantly fall asleep in his bouncy chair. In fact, in some ways there was relief for me in getting him to that campus. My own father did not. Besides, I think of it as a necessary waystation before we have more adventures together.
“What’s a dad’s first job?” I used to say to my kids, when they were little.
“To keep us safe,” they would say, amused but reassured.
I hope we have made the right decisions. And now I am crying.