About three weeks ago, I embarked on the 7-hour drive from my parent’s suburban Chicago home to my college apartment. While this is not a new ritual for me, as a third-year college student, saying goodbye this year was immensely harder than any other year. And I am not unique in feeling this way.
Students have witnessed an unprecedented level of illness and death since last stepping on campus. In the U.S. alone, there have been over 5 million cases of COVID-19 and some 162,000 deaths. A time of year that usually calls for great celebration now also brings a silent sadness to each goodbye.
Students are leaving home knowing coronavirus cases will undoubtedly continue to rise over the fall semester. More seriously, families are parting ways with an awareness that they cannot protect each other from becoming ill. No one knows what will occur over these next few months. No one can guarantee a happy family reunion.
Students are saying goodbye to mothers who are nurses fighting daily for the lives of others, to fathers who are teachers about to return to the classroom, to sisters who are have an auto-immune disorder that makes them vulnerable to COVID-19, to brothers who are struggling with their mental health amid such hopeless and uncertain times, and to grandparents who stand little chance against the virus.
Nothing about this is easy.
No student wants to receive a call saying his father is being placed on a ventilator hundreds of miles away, or that her sister relapsed into addiction, overwhelmed by the isolation and stress of a COVID-19 world. No parent wants to hear her son is sick without anyone there to nurse him, or that his daughter is having panic attacks, worried about finances at home and terrified of contracting the virus as a working student.
But this is the reality.
These are the thoughts weighing on students’ minds as they return to class. These are the fears parents shield behind brave faces during that final goodbye.
I emphasize the difficulty of saying goodbye this fall to bring awareness to certain responsibilities.
To my fellow students: Know that nothing about returning to college is selfish and you should not feel guilty. However, please keep in mind that college towns are still home to people other than students. At home, you may have followed the rules of social distancing out of concern for your parents, but returning to campus is not a license to stop caring. Others’ loved ones are still at stake when you act irresponsibly.
If you immediately rush to attend a frat party, you are failing all of us and making a mockery of the immense privilege we students have been given in returning to school.
To the incoming freshmen: I am going to blunt in saying your time of mourning a disrupted senior year has ended. Many graduation parties, private proms, and belated senior celebrations have been given a pass over these past five months.
As you start college, it goes without saying that you will miss out on many traditional freshman experiences. That is unfortunate. But you will not be able to continue those irresponsible practices. As students, we can make an immense impact. If we carry our masks the same way we carry our cellphones, we will all have a positive influence.
This semester will test all of us. Students will experience greater isolation, anxiety, hopelessness, and, with many on campus until as late as Thanksgiving or Christmas, homesickness. So colleges will need to keep mental health resources in mind as well. Saving lives goes beyond sanitizing and masks.
Government and local school officials, I implore you to step into the shoes of a college student and keep our dreams of reuniting with loved ones in mind as you make policy decisions. Weigh the risks of school reopening plans, set standards for proper pandemic practices, and push legislation that will save lives. You have the power to protect our families in ways we cannot.
No one can wish this pandemic out of existence, but we can all take steps to make it less devastating. Everyone is loved by someone, and none of us should wait until the virus personally affects us to take action.
Kaitlyn Schatteman is from Sugar Grove and attends the University of Western Ontario.