As students all across the country return to school this week, whether online or in-person, we’ve been inundated with viral videos and pictures of college students collected in large groups, sometimes in line for bars, sometimes packed closely together, sometimes at a densely-attended house party, spilling out onto the lawn. “Look at these irresponsible students!” social media love to exclaim. “How selfish!”
There’s no doubt that the decision to call students back to campus, as if it was any other autumn in America, was a bad one. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the COVID-19 positivity rate soared to a gobsmacking 31 percent this week, far greater than the 13 percent when students arrived on campus a week ago.
The University of Notre Dame was forced to pivot to online classes just days into their fall semester. “Don’t Make Us Write Obituaries,” pleaded the headline from the student paper. At Indiana University and Purdue, students who attend large parties are being suspended for violating school rules. At Syracuse, school officials warned that a single gathering on the school’s quad may have done enough damage to force them to close down the campus. Just this morning, we learned that the University of Alabama has recorded more than 560 positive tests since students returned to campus last week.
Who could have foreseen teens and young adults giving into the temptation to be social when left unsupervised on college campuses, other than everyone?
Before Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials all begin shaking their heads in disappointment at the university set, let’s be clear about how we got here.
Since COVID-19 made its way to the United States back in January, the nation’s young people have been subjected to months of conflicting messages about the seriousness of the virus and, in extreme cases, whether or not the virus actually exists. Mixed messages have come from our federal government, our state leaders, and most of all, from their parents.
A quick perusal of my Facebook page over the course of the last five months would reveal plenty of suburban parents far more concerned about their kid’s football season than about the 200,000 Americans who have lost their lives from the virus. When the Big Ten did the right thing, and frankly the only moral thing they could have done in cancelling fall sports, they were met by a group of parents at their headquarters, demanding that Iowa and Ohio State and Illinois football be allowed to go on as usual. We even had elected officials begging that college sports be allowed to go on, suggesting that the risk of permanent heart damage for young athletes was an acceptable one when put up against college football. Each day, my Instagram feed is rife with photos of adult friends attending social gatherings, arms around a large group of people, cramming their faces together to fit into a selfie. No one wears a mask.
I’m not even going to go into the conspiracy theorists, the anti-vaxxers, and the several people I’ve unfriended for suggesting that masks don’t work/are part of a vast government conspiracy to control the sheeple. Few and far between are the messages about looking out for each other, making small sacrifices for the common good, or the importance of trusting science over politics. If a parent feels strongly enough that Bill Gates invented COVID-19 to implant all of us with microchips to put it on Facebook, I’m guessing it’s come up once or twice at the dinner table.
After a lot of soul-searching and hand-wringing, my husband and I decided to allow our son to return to his university and move into his off-campus apartment, where he’s taking his classes online. His actual move-in date was preceded by weeks of lectures about responsibility, which mostly consisted of us threatening to drag him home by his ear if we found out he wasn’t doing the things he was supposed to do to keep himself and his roommates safe. In addition to his school supplies, we packed for him all our carefully-hoarded Lysol wipes, three giant tubs of hand sanitizer, and a box of 50 disposable masks. On the four-hour drive back to campus, I lectured him until he got bored and fell asleep.
What we saw on the way to campus was a hard wake-up call, as Chicagoland has been (mostly) taking social distancing and mask-wearing seriously for months. Despite a state mask mandate, we saw people running into gas stations without masks, sales people and fast food workers behind counters with masks below their noses or around their necks, and unmissable signs requiring masks going disregarded everywhere. No one seemed to notice or care.
Back at my son’s apartment complex, dozens of students and parents were moving in, bare-faced. Shouting directions to each other, huffing and puffing to move furniture, laughing and joking and hugging friends they hadn’t seen all summer. The minute we walked into our son’s apartment, we were met by another parent coming down the stairs without a mask. A maskless maintenance worker got within about six inches of my son’s face to give him directions about something, while I seethed behind my own mask, remembering that the mask I insisted my son keep on only protected the guy spitting in his face, not my child.
Adults have let children down every step of the way in dealing with this global pandemic. From the highest echelons of the federal government to the moms refusing to give up “girls night out,” the response to COVID has been a complete and total betrayal of the things we purport to hold dear. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness has come to mean my life, my liberty, and my pursuit of my own happiness — and screw the guy on the ventilator and all the Americans who have lost their livelihoods.
It’s easy to look at large groups of college kids congregating around campus — so young, so oblivious to the world around them — and mumble under our breath about the narcissistic, egomaniacal, self-centered “kids,”not caring about anything but their own enjoyment.
But let’s be honest about who modeled this behavior for them to begin with.