Our new normal



DAY 157 - I think it’s finally time to stop counting days. Today marks the end of our Bohn family extended day program as we begin our trek west to drop off Josh at school. We will also meet Abby in New Jersey in a few days to set up shop in her off campus apartment. Nothing about this trip feels quite right—more dread than excitement about remote learning and social isolation, no proper send off for Abby, no cake for Hans’ birthday today—and we’re taking bets on how long it will be until we head back to Ohio to pick up Josh when this expensive experiment to bring students to campus for remote learning fails miserably.

I am not, however, entirely negative about the possibility that Denison will be able to pull this off and Josh will complete the entire semester in Granville. I suppose the most baffling question to me is why it’s necessary. My guess is that it all has to do with money. Why else would colleges think about bringing thousands of students back to campus to sit in their dorm rooms and take classes remotely, pick up their boxed meals at the dining hall, not be able to participate in competitive sports, not allow friends in their rooms or visits from family, all the while testing them regularly in hopes that no one will get sick and spread the disease to the entire campus community? There is no question in my mind that these kids are safer staying home, so student health and safety is not the primary concern. These colleges need the money.

I try to put a positive spin on this and look at both sides of the story. Perhaps colleges are attempting to give students some semblance of a normal experience because the pandemic is particularly tough on this age group. These kids need to make a break with parents, to complete (sort of) that full transition to adulthood, and to build the connections and relationships that will last a lifetime. Colleges COULD be trying their best to provide the social and academic environment, however warped this year, to help students continue their trajectory into adulthood in this most stilted and troubling time.

But no matter—we are on our way. Hans packed the car full of suitcases and baseball equipment, only returned to the house once for forgotten items, and made a pit stop at CVS before driving 10+ hours straight to Austintown, OH, about 2 hours from Denison. I was conflicted about leaving Abby behind to pack up the rest of her belongings and drive to New Jersey alone, but she was not. That girl is ready to move on with her life, to make her mark, and is embracing college in whatever form it is forced to take this semester. I will miss her tremendously, but I remember how she feels.

Last year at this time we enjoyed a much more relaxed family trip to Ohio, stopping to visit family, checking out the 9/11 Memorial, and breathing in the natural beauty of rural Pennsylvania. I even choked down a pulled pork sandwich at a pro-Trump roadside stand along the way, but kept my sunglasses on and hat down to obscure my identity. This year we are on a mission, with no stopping except to buy gas and grab takeout. Pandemic or not, Hans always chooses Wendy’s—it’s his birthday so there are no arguments. We pass so many signs for DQ, but there’s no stopping this time.

No one talks much in the car after the first hour or so. Josh keeps busy on his phone in the back seat surrounded by his dorm room contents. He is traveling lighter this year, with just one suitcase of clothes and his baseball bag, but he’s brought along golf clubs anticipating lots of time to practice his swing on the school quads. I, however, am fully prepared to entertain myself on the road trip, armed with my laptop, books, a knitting project and the Zillow app to pass the time. I try to be a good co-pilot by holding Hans’ phone on the charger since it won’t charge itself, and I pull up the Red Sox game so we could watch the Sox get crushed by the Yankees yet again. I also move into camel mode so I can avoid using public restrooms until we arrive at the hotel. We are staying overnight in our first hotel since we brought Josh home from Denison on March 8. It’s a Hampton Inn, and since a friend sent me research that Hiltons and Hampton Inns are handling COVID better than most, we booked a room.

About an hour before we arrive in Austintown, Josh gets a Facetime call from some friends on campus. I can’t see the screen, but I can hear them. They sound happy, laughing, excited to see Josh and the rest of the team, not at all reticent about strange conditions on campus. For the first time I feel hopeful that these kids might be able overcome the limits of COVID and make the most of being together on campus. This semester may change them, may make them truly embrace personal sacrifice for the greater good, and may help them forge bonds stronger than fraternity rushes and keg parties ever could. Their mission is actually quite simple—if they want to stay, they must keep each other safe.

I’m rooting for them.

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