Off to College During COVID: One Mother’s Story


When a child goes to college, it’s not a surprise. In fact, I trained for this day since my son, Bailey, was born, but his leaving was a day I dreaded. Ultimately, I wanted better for him, as senior year during COVID was such a disappointment— no graduation, no prom, no track season, no orchestra concerts, and sadly, an ex-girlfriend. I was blessed to have so much extra time with him during those lockdown months and it was incredibly hard to say goodbye after that. I often wondered if I was doing the right thing, but I prayed about it, followed medical guidance, and made sure Bailey was comfortable going. In the end, I had to do what I thought was best in terms of his mental health. Going to college seemed like a way to at least try for something better. 


A College Send-Off

a building on the Purdue college campus with a giant sign stating,Together We Will Protect Purdue

Bailey attends Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, which is five hours away from St. Louis. Our family had a mini-celebration before bringing him to college. We rented a lake house and a boat an hour outside of Purdue. We wanted to give closure to his senior year since he never got more than a late virtual ceremony in August. He got up on water skis in his cap and gown and made some epic memories. I hope it showed all of our kids that old cliche—  when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. We did this by giving him a fun send-off when he felt his school didn’t do enough for him, and showed him you can still do things safely with challenges and restrictions in place.


Restrictions, and More Restrictions

Speaking of restrictions, Purdue was one of the first colleges to announce they were welcoming students on campus and offering as many in-person classes as possible. They have strict policies and made headlines for expelling nine students who violated the Purdue Pledge that students had to sign before attending.  The pledge states you must wear a mask except in your dorm room, keep six feet apart, and only have one guest per roommate in the dorms. 


a college dorm room with a loft bed over a mini refrigerator and microwave, and a chair 

Even outside, masks are worn. Initially, they were only required outdoors when students were within six feet of each other; however, journalists came on campus trying to “catch” students not adhering to the Pledge so they could call out Purdue for failing. So masks became required everywhere.


Parties were banned. Cafeterias were closed for indoor dining, but had tents with plexiglass partitions. Purdue offered a balance of in-person and online classes for the semester. Bailey had two virtual, three in-person, and one hybrid class, with the understanding that schedules could change at any time.


Purdue eliminated three-day weekends to prevent travel off-campus. Random testing was in place; any positives were sent to on-campus “quarantine” housing. Campus life looked different, but most students were just happy to be back in a school setting.


a group of college students gathered in front of a fountain on Purdue's campusSome freshman traditions were still able to occur, with restrictions. Freshman week was modified, and one tradition is the fountain run, where freshmen run from one huge fountain to another across campus and jump in. This became a masked event.


Clubs became virtual, losing some members. Football was postponed, and then when they could play, no students could attend. Fraternities and Sororities held restricted events.  Dorm life was a tough adjustment. Doors had to remain closed, only one guest was allowed per room, and students were asked to always use the same communal restroom for tracing purposes. It was hard to meet new people, and the isolation was very real.


Other safety measures included hand sanitizer stations, temperature checks, plexiglass separating teachers from students, and signs about distancing.  Large indoor spaces were sectioned off, and gathering places were roped off. 


The COVID Impact on College Students

Bailey was prepared for the restrictions, but it was hard, and the isolation was very real. I encouraged him to focus on what he DID have and less on what was missing. He texted quite a bit the first two weeks, I sent care packages, and as the weeks passed, he got used to the restrictive lifestyle.


When the semester started, COVID cases on campus were low.  Most challenges came from cases in the surrounding city and keeping students safe when leaving campus (for Walmart trips, etc.). Purdue’s campus population is 49,700. The school dashboard showed 89,870 tests administered since August 1st, with a 4.22% positivity rate. Of those testing positive, 3326 were students, and 467 were employees of the university. 


Initially, most students took the restrictions very seriously. But some suffered more than others with feeling isolated, lonely, or just angry— and ventured out more, breaking some rules. According to Bailey, most of the kids really aren’t worried about getting COVID, they’re concerned about protecting those more vulnerable. No one wants to test positive because they would have more restrictions, so avoiding COVID was more about avoiding consequences than worrying about the virus.


Meeting people and making friends amid such restrictions is tough. Bailey reached out more to people on his floor as it was difficult to talk to people in class. He was lonely and sad at times, and he would video chat with us unexpectedly—  which I loved. I read on Grown and Flown about a mom who said her son would always call during meals. She discovered that he didn’t want to eat alone in his room; he wanted to eat with someone, even if on a video call. We had that experience as well. I never wanted to miss any of those, never wanted to be too busy to take the call. Always take the call!!! 


The COVID / College Impact on a Mom

I must admit, taking Bailey to college was one of the hardest “mom” things I have ever had to do. I didn’t want to burden him with my sadness; I didn’t want him thinking about his leaving breaking his mom’s heart, even if it felt that way to me. So I held back the tears, left a two-page note under his pillow for him to read once we were gone, and gave him a last hug goodbye.  


a teen boy walking in a crosswalk as he goes to college for the first time


As I watched him cross the street, I took one last picture of him literally walking away, and it broke me. Leaving him was so hard, but I did it and came out the other side of it. Nothing can prepare any parent for how it will feel—  for me, I felt like a part of me was missing, and I left part of my heart at Purdue. 


a mom and dad with their three kids, all wearing masks in a parking lotCindy lives in Manchester, Missouri, with her husband, Bryce, and their three children, Bailey (19), Elizabeth (17), and Faith (12).  She works as a freelance Developmental Editor for bluedoor Publishing. Her daughter, Elizabeth, is a senior in high school, so the college process is underway yet again. The Mosher’s are big fans of Harry Potter, and more recently, The Mandalorian, and one thing that keeps them connected (and sane) is the amount of laughter in their home.