The Parental Dilemma of the Year: Should We Let Our College Kids Return to Campus?

should students return to campus

The Parental Dilemma of the Year: Should We Let Our College Kids Return to Campus?

Published July 30, 2020

should students return to campus

It’s the question heard ’round the country, and the answer is complicated—and different for each family dealing with its own health, education, and financial concerns. 

To help with the process, we turned to several sources.

Here’s the latest about COVID-19 on campuses; what questions to ask; how to decide what’s right for your family; and how to keep moving forward with higher-ed plans, regardless of where your student is housed. 

Get Answers Before Students Return to Campus

The Latest News 

A recent survey by The New York Times revealed that at least 6,300 cases of COVID-19 have been linked to about 270 colleges over the course of the pandemicand that’s before classes have begun at most schools.

In addition, the Times reports that there’s not a “standardized reporting method for coronavirus cases and deaths at colleges, and the information is not being publicly tracked at a national level.”  

Some parents who opted to have their students return to campus are just now learning that their school will not be opening after all.

USA Today reports that schools have been holding off as long as they can to cancel classes held on campus. The primary reason? “Colleges need students on campus to bring in tuition and room-and-board money, and to help at-risk students persist toward their degrees.

Plus, many are worried about a backlash from students, lawmakers or the public, with pressure ranging from the White House to some state governments for education institutions to reopen fully.”

What to Ask  

Allison Slater Tate is an education and parenting writer, and high school guidance counselor.

She’s also a mom of four, working through the same dilemma both personally and professionally.

To help sort through the issues, here are some of the questions she asks her students, and has asked herself while trying to decide what to do:

  1. Where is the college? Is it in a current hotspot? What phase is that state or town in? 
  2. What are the medical facilities like nearby?
  3. What will the housing situation be? On campus, with safety protocols? Off campus? If it’s off campus, will I be able to get a refund if my child’s college shuts down suddenly? Will the college give a refund for housing in that situation?
  4. What scaffolding will be in place for mental health, socializing safely, and other forms of support (academic, etc.)?
  5. What will the dining plan be, and if the college shuts down, will there be refunds? If not, am I okay with that?
  6. If my child stays home, what will that look like? What will the expectations be from me? Can they handle a job on top of online classes?
  7. If they take a gap year, what will they do? The most successful gap years run from September-May and usually contain two or three elements. Will they be able to have structured, meaningful pursuits during the gap year?
  8. Will taking a leave or a gap year affect their financial aid package or NCAA eligibility?
  9. If they get sick on campus, what will we do?
  10. If campus shuts down, how will they get home? Would I want them to come home if they’re exposed? Would we need a transitional space for them to quarantine?

How to Decide What’s Right for Your Family

When it comes to decision-making, “first and foremost, trust your gut,” says nationally recognized child, adolescent, and family psychologist Dr. Jennifer Hartstein.

“If you’re not comfortable with the plans . . . and can make choices that work for you, do so. You don’t have to go along with everyone else. Focus on you and your family.”

Talk Openly

Doctor Hartstein says it’s important to talk with your kids about their own comfort level, and to speak honestly about the pros, cons, and risks.

The decision, she says, isn’t one that can be based on logic alone: “Your children may really want to go back to school and they may not be able to do so. Maybe it’s too risky for your family because you have a loved one who could be at risk.

Maybe it just doesn’t make sense. Whatever the reason, there will be emotions involved.

Don’t diminish or ignore them. Allow them to be expressed.” 

From a member of our Paying for College 101 Facebook group:

It’s definitely a personal decision . . . Some are accepted to schools in the nation’s virus hotspots and may be uncomfortable. Some don’t do well online. Some are vulnerable or have vulnerable relatives. If they defer, they still get four years. Maybe next year will be better, maybe it won’t.

But it’s not for us to judge other people’s decisions. Especially during a pandemic.

You also need to understand how fluid the situation is. Nothing is written in stone and can’t be, so you’ll need to be flexible–to have a Plan B and C.

“A decision you make today might have to change tomorrow,” says Dr. Hartstein. 

Uncertainty Creates Anxiety

A recent story in Ms. Magazine discussed the issue of sending children of all ages back to school: “It’s not an option to wish away COVID-19 because people are weary.

COVID-19 is happening. The United States has the worst numbers and, arguably, the worst response in the world. Cases are increasingly spiking every day, and there is no plan.”

Doctor Hartstein recommends that you recognize the challenges, especially those related to making decisions when there are so many unknowns.

“Uncertainty creates anxiety and concern, which makes problem-solving hard,” she says. Remember, though, in most cases you can change your mind.

What Should You Do? A Higher-Ed Professional Speaks Out

In an episode of his podcast, The Prof G Show, Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at NYU’s Stern School of Business and a public speaker and author, shared his views on whether or not to send your teen to campus: 

“A lot of it’s situational, in that if you’re in a position to take a gap year, I would probably do that, especially if it’s the freshman year.

But the question then becomes: well, where do you gap? … what exactly do you do?

“You have to sit down with your son or daughter and say, let’s be honest about the experience. Realistically, the university is not going to allow in-person classes.

That was a lienow they’re continuing to say, well, we’re going to have studios and labs. No, they’re notwe’re not going to have on-campus learning.

Let me just come out and say that . . . Do you want an online learning model? And you have to decide, is it worth it?

Look at the amount of money you’re paying for Zoom classes.

And you have to make a decision . . . If you’re in your sophomore or junior year and you’re going to be home with your parents anyway, you might as well keep that momentum towards the accreditation and just figure out a way to kind of grin and bear it . . . 

“There’s also sort of a hybrid modeland that is, sending your kids back . . . and they take their classes online, maybe they’re in the dorms, maybe they’re not.

I think that’s a decent model . . . and that gets the kid out of the house . . .”


What Did Allison Slater Tate Do?

With the clock ticking, a decision was made.

“So we took all of this into account,” she said, “and in the end, because my son is eighteen and telling him what to do would be healthy for none of us, we let him lead. He wants to go.

We are making that happen as safely as possible, understanding all the possible consequences and all the ways we need to plan for every outcome, and we are all at peace with it.” 

From a member of our Paying for College 101 Facebook group:

I am very nervous, but my kid is going. She’s a freshman. She’s a dance major, and most of her classes are meeting in person/hybrid. If she could commute, she would. If online classes would work, she would do that.

But neither of those is an option. She’s also a very sensible and cautious kid, and her school, and her department in particular, seem to be taking safety very seriously.

She might have considered a gap year, but she already took one and is really ready to be moving forward with her training.


Review the information in The New York Times survey, ask yourself and your student the questions posed by Allison Slater Tate, use the techniques suggested by Dr. Hartstein, and consider the suggestions by Scott Galloway. 

And whether your child goes or stays, also consider sharing with them this splash of reality from Slater Tate, to help manage their expectations: 

I prepared my son for the fact that this will not be what he imagined, but he should get out of it what he can.”

That’s great advice for all of us during these anything but normal times. 






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