Class of 2024 is starting college where the class of 2020 left off -- disappointed

As students return to campus this week, they are bringing COVID-19 with them

For some members of the class of 2024, the start of college may be as disappointing as the end of college was for the class of 2020.

The danger of contracting COVID-19 is even higher now, making the decision by the University System of Georgia to bring students back to campus fraught with risks. That is why students, including the nearly 30,000 undergraduates starting classes Thursday at the University of Georgia, are facing new restrictions and restraints.

The changes range from limited access to dining halls, which has led dozens of parents at UGA and Georgia Tech to complain of long lines, cold food or no food, to students finding most of their courses have shifted online, raising the question of why they’re even paying to live on campus.

Parent forums and social media posts abound with reports of disappointed students, from young men at UGA and Georgia Southern discovering the basketball rims have been taken down on campus courts, to Georgia Tech freshmen arriving at their dorms to learn their roommates opted to stay home.

Some of the problems can be fixed, including the monstrous lines this week at UGA snaking around dining halls. UGA Dining Services released new, expanded hours today to ease the gridlock and the long waits.

Other fixes won’t be as easy, including the laments of parents of freshmen that there aren’t more social opportunities for their children.

A Tech parent sent me a note wondering why resident assistants aren’t doing more to help freshmen aclimate. Her son, she said, was feeling isolated; he began an almost an entirely online schedule Monday so he’s not meeting friends through classes.

My son is a senior at Tech. I told him about the discussions among parents of freshmen who feel they have few options to socialize and meet new people. Aren’t RAs visiting kids who may be feeling unmoored, I asked him?

His response: “Isn’t that asking them to risk their own physical health to improve someone else’s mental health?”

That’s the same question K-12 teachers have been asking, as many parents pressure districts to resume on-site classes because their children’s mental health is suffering.

On social media, college parents are expressing surprise at the broad swath of safety policies, saying they sent their children to residential campuses to enjoy a normal social experience, not a prison-like environment.

But there is nothing normal right now about living in a dorm at a college with thousands of students. For example, a parent shared that her son had a hallway chat with a dorm mate two doors down about football. A few days, her son got a call advising him to quarantine as his dorm neighbor tested positive for COVID-19.

She wanted to know: “Is this what college is going to be – having to be super careful every single second?”

Yes, I think so.

Otherwise, Georgia college campuses may be forced to close and switch to remote classes for the fall semester, as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Michigan State University did this week.

A working paper by John Drake, a University of Georgia ecology professor, predicts COVID-19 transmissions as students return to campus based on disease spread models.

Among the predictions for a campus the size of UGA with 40,000 students and 10,000 staff:

From 210 to 1,618 imported COVID-19 infections can be expected to return to campus with students.

Under current intervention plans, the campus would still see more than 30,000 cumulative cases after 100 days.

Classes of 17 or greater are more likely than not to include an infected person.

For significant reductions in transmissions, schools like UGA must target off-campus events and parties, including gatherings in bars and clubs.

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