Column: Colleges are closing because of coronavirus so my kids are coming home. Help!

USC campus
Tommy Trojan stands guard over a quiet USC campus near downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday as classes are held online for the first day due to coronavirus concerns.
(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

My daughter texts from her apartment just off campus at Temple University in Philadelphia to say she has run out of toilet paper and the stores nearby have too.

I tell her to go on campus quickly and steal some, and I am only half-joking. Because Temple is closing its campus as of Monday and kicking kids out of the dorms as of next Friday, so there must be a few spare rolls lying around.

Fiona has been encouraged by the administration to return home even though she lives in a non-university apartment; like hundreds of thousands of college students across the country, she will be finishing the semester online — at home, if Temple University has its way (which is why, considering what we are paying, including out-of-state fees, for what is now an online university, I don’t think a roll or two of TP is actually stealing).

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March 21, 2020

Home being in California, this means she will be “attending” some of her classes at 6 a.m. Unless she chooses to ignore Temple’s request and stay in Philadelphia, where she is contractually obliged to pay rent through July.


Not surprisingly, she is worried about a lot of things: What is she supposed to do with her stuff? How is she going to audition for the fall plays (she is a theater major)? Should she come home? When should she come home? And how is she supposed to take an acting class online AT 6 A.M.???

I want to keep it light because her main job right now is to stay healthy and stress is the enemy during even the normal flu season, so I tell her that as a theater major she had best get used to early-morning call time. She LOLs me and we all try to stay calm because none of our family or friends is actually sick, as far as we know, except of course Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson and they seem to be doing just fine, prayer hands emoji.

Breathe, I say. And go wash your hands. We will figure it all out.

Obviously, I am not the only one having this conversation. Everyone is anxious, to say the least, as the reported case count rises, everything closes and the Dow Jones sets a super-bad example by freaking out. The physical, financial and emotional toll of all of this is terrifying.

For college students and their families however, the concerns are both intensely specific — how are we all going to logistically do this — and stomach-churningly existential: What kind of a setback is this, particularly for seniors, those who are in the midst of key final projects and those who were counting on these final months at school to help launch them into careers and independent adulthood.

My son is a senior at the University of Missouri, where classes have either been canceled or put online until spring break, which begins March 21.

Right now, the university says it will be reopening after the break, but as that may change, Danny does not want to risk it. So he is staying in Columbia over break in hopes he can finish his senior project, a documentary he has been working on for more than a year, while he still has access to the equipment that will allow him to do that.

We are sad we won’t get to see him but considering the number of college students returning home from all over the country like so many refugees, we are just as happy that at least one of our older kids won’t be in an airport any time soon. Though the current health crisis appears to pose no danger to him graduating, we, like hundreds of thousands of other parents, have no idea what it all means for commencement.

Danny doesn’t care so much about that; in the midst of a pandemic, the ritual of walking across the stage in a cap and gown should be the least of everyone’s concerns. He is too busy worrying about what he’s graduating into — a virus-exacerbated recession? A political maelstrom? A death count made higher by lack of insurance?

Never mind the lack of emotional closure — some of Danny’s friends at other schools were given days to leave campus, possibly, because they are seniors, forever — what about the lack of preparation? Gone are those job fairs and on-campus interviews, those one-on-one conversations with professors and advisors about job prospects or graduate school.

Danny had set up meetings over spring break with people in the documentary business; now he’s not coming home and pretty much everyone is shut down or working out of their homes anyway.


The ability to move classes online ensures that everyone can continue to learn and, perhaps more important, get credit for learning. But college isn’t just about class; for those students whose spring performances have been canceled, whose athletic careers are being interrupted, the move online is devastating.

And, of course, there is the larger question of how exactly all these online classes, not to mention things like midterms and finals, are going to work. Lecture-heavy courses might translate well, but it’s tough not to worry about all activity-oriented classwork that cannot be replicated.

On the other hand, Fiona has just informed us that she will be bringing a sword home so she can continue her sword-fighting class (theater major). Although she will not be able to be tested for a sword-fighting license — there goes her shot at starring in the “Game of Thrones” prequel, I guess — we are all looking forward to watching, and filming and posting, her emerging skills.

The prospect of all this multi-generational work from home is, however, a bit alarming. Many families are already scrambling to adjust to employer decisions to clear offices in an “abundance of caution.” How on earth will they survive the additional pressure of college students suddenly reappearing, in all their young adult glory, at residences now serving as Mom and/or Dad’s workplace?

Family togetherness is a precious thing but even if you have really good Wi-Fi, how much downloading pressure from Zoom, Slack, email and company systems can it take? And what if you don’t have Wi-Fi? How is crowding in your local library or Starbucks better than having kids in a classroom?

More important, where the heck am I supposed to work if my two oldest kids come home? I am writing this in my son’s bedroom, using his desk and his monitor. With two kids in college do you think I have my own? Come on.

We all love our children, but I cannot be the only mother who is now having to figure out where to put the exercise bike and all those Christmas decorations now that the kids are coming home four months early.

And if those kids think they’re going to be able to do all the things they do at college in our house — when we sent them out of state so they could do those things where we do not have to see them do it — well, they have another think coming. There are house rules, after all, and they include everyone over 18 doing their own laundry and lending a hand at dinner

Oh, and making sure there’s enough toilet paper in the house.