We sent my sister back to the University of Maine Orono last week. I’ve never played Russian roulette before, but I think this must be what it feels like. It feels like we’re just waiting for COVID-19 to start circulating and to start killing.

I wanted my sister to stay home and do this semester virtually, but I understand why she went back. She’s got friends. She likes her professors and is involved with a lot of campus activities. And no 20-year-old wants to be stuck at home with their mom and their older sister and the older sister’s weird loud dog. And I trust my sister to wear her mask and keep her distance and to wash her hands a whole bunch. We sent her up with plenty of hand sanitizer and disposable masks to keep in her backpack to hand out to anyone who might need them. And I trust my sister. If there’s one good thing about having a parent who had cancer, it’s that you viscerally understand the importance of protecting immunocompromised people.

I don’t trust the thousands of other students living on and around campus. People between the ages of 18 and 22 are not known for their risk management skills. That’s why their car insurance rates are so expensive. In deciding to reopen the campus, it seems like administrators at the University of Maine took everything we know about how college students tend to behave and just threw that out the window.

I think the university should have done everything remotely that they possibly could, and reserved in-person learning for classes that absolutely can’t be transferred entirely online; you can do literature classes over Zoom but, for example, you can’t research the molecular structure of fish brains.

The university has put a fair amount of effort into testing – my sister was tested as soon as she arrived on campus, along with everyone else. That’s good. Students living on-campus have access to quarantine spaces if they test positive and need to isolate themselves, and support including meal delivery. This is good and makes sense. However, students living off-campus do not have access to those resources.

That’s bad and doesn’t make a ton of sense from a public health standpoint. Basically, the university’s health and safety plans all rely on a bunch of college students being perfectly safe and self-sacrificial 100 percent of the time. All it takes is one off-campus house party, or one student not self-reporting symptoms (because who wants to be sent to the isolation dorm for 14 days?) and there will be an outbreak. I mean, just think about the things you did when you were 19. Would you put public health into your own hands? I sure wouldn’t. I was an idiot in college. The pre-frontal cortex, the part of the human brain that is in charge of decision-making, isn’t fully developed until around age 25. We’ve had over a century to observe the traditional American college experience, and for over a century it has involved lots of parties, students talking in each other’s faces, and overconsumption of alcohol. All things that should be avoided in a pandemic.


But of course, it all comes down to money, as usual. Most colleges and universities don’t have billion-dollar endowments. And while you might think that UMaine, as a state school, gets support from the state, the fact is that they don’t get enough. It’s not just tuition, which is what students pay for classes – professors are still teaching. It’s the room and board money. The university relies on students paying for the privilege to live in close quarters in dorms on campus – which is precisely the scenario you want to avoid in a pandemic. Orono is a college town full of businesses large and small who rely on the student population to pay their bills.

My mom and I have been gaming out scenarios for the inevitable coronavirus outbreak. Will it be in a fraternity house? A classroom? Off-campus cases, where students are living in apartments not under university jurisdiction, leading to further on-campus spread is the scenario I find most likely. Will the school make it to winter break, or will campus shut down as soon as the refund date for room and board money passes?

It feels like we are sending thousands of young people into the maw of potential death or long-term disability because administrators couldn’t find anyone to foot the bill for extended shutdowns and online learning. The state doesn’t have a ton of extra money. The federal government is AWOL. We’re staring down the barrel of a gun. “Ignoring a contagious disease” and “pretending things are fine and normal” are terrible plans.

But apparently they are the only plans anyone has put forth. I am scared.

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @mainemillennial

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