Opinion: Virtual college in a university town

August 20, 2020 Athens - Students and faculty members wait in line at COVID Surveillance Asymptomatic Testing center at Legion Field as the University of Georgia started classes for the fall semester on Thursday, August 20, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
August 20, 2020 Athens - Students and faculty members wait in line at COVID Surveillance Asymptomatic Testing center at Legion Field as the University of Georgia started classes for the fall semester on Thursday, August 20, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

A mom explores her son’s remote learning in age of COVID-19

A few weeks ago my son canceled his housing and meal plan for the fall semester. After much discussion, he decided to attend classes remotely from his childhood bedroom, down the street from his high school, Clarke Central, the alma mater of Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp.

It was a decision that should have been a no-brainer. My son’s college experience would be vastly different from last year’s — requiring him to quarantine until tested negative for COVID-19, to test twice weekly, to wear a face covering at all times, to stay 6 feet away from others at all times, to not attend a gathering of more than 10 people, precautions taken because we are in the midst of a global pandemic. Currently the U.S. has the worst outbreak in the world, with some 6 million cases. Already more than 180,000 people have died nationally and more than 5,000 in our home state of Georgia, but, like everyone, we kept hoping that the situation would improve.

From the start, the coronavirus has been real to our family. My sister, a nurse, contracted the disease on the job in late March. Even though her case would be classified as “mild” — she never went to the hospital — she is what is now known as a long-hauler, one of thousands still exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms like fatigue, brain fog, and chronic inflammation.

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Credit: Paige French

Credit: Paige French

Even though people my son’s age tend to have mild cases, he decided that the benefits of attending college in person were not the worth the risk, because no one knows what being infected by COVID-19 entails in the long-term.

Nationwide, Black, Indigenous, Pacific Islander, and Latino Americans are dying at more than triple the rate of white Americans, even when adjusted for age, meaning that younger Americans who are Black, Indigenous, Pacific Islander, and Latino are dying of COVID-19 at a rate far higher than their white counterparts. Additionally here in Georgia, as in many parts of the nation, infections are being driven by 18 to 29-year-olds with mild or asymptomatic cases who spread the disease to vulnerable populations, which also include the elderly and those with compromised immunity.

As a resident of a college town, Athens, home of the University of Georgia, I was hesitant to send my son to another college town where he could have served as a possible vector for the virus, especially since there is a high probability that his school, like many, will shut down within several weeks, and he will have to return home, possibly infecting our family, which includes my in-laws. However, unlike most, my son had the choice to attend school remotely because his university is among the 15% of schools providing online and hybrid instruction. Most classes in the University System of Georgia will be held in person, leaving many without alternatives.

But now that the reality of my son staying home has sunk in, I wonder if he would be safer at his school in Massachusetts with its protections, especially as I am grasping the dire situation of my college town, Athens. Since March our local government has tried to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, only to have Brian Kemp initially claim that state guidelines take precedence over local mandates. Athens has experienced a surge this summer. Before the university resumed classes August 20th, 504 cases of COVID-19 were linked to University of Georgia students, faculty, and staff. One employee died. Leading health policy and public health faculty have spoken out about UGA’s plan for testing, finding it to be not just inadequate but dangerous, especially on a campus where freshmen are required to live in crowded dorms inconsistent with CDC guidelines due to real estate housing developer Corvias seemingly prioritizing profit over safety. The cramped dorms will most likely increase community spread on a campus known for its Greek life, one which refuses to stop even in the middle of a pandemic.

I am sad for my son, stuck in his bedroom. I worry for the faculty, staff, and students, for my community. I am livid that any of us have to decide whether or not our children go to college. Unfortunately this is the situation that we find ourselves in, making impossible choices, due to leaders like Gov. Brian Kemp and the rest of the Republican administration, predominately white men (The Atlantic has even called Kemp a “wannabe authoritarian”) who have ignored science at both the state and federal level, refusing to support commonsense precautions such as shutdowns and mask mandates, precautions which would protect us all from contracting a virus which is airborne.

Deirdre Sugiuchi lives in Athens, Georgia, where for 15 years she served as a public school librarian.