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My just-graduated high school senior got coronavirus on Day 11 of leaving the nest — Here's what I've learned

Jennifer Folsom, author of “The Ringmaster: Work, Life, And Keeping It All Together” shares the lessons she learned from her son’s campus-acquired COVID-19.
Jennifer Folsom with her 18-year-old son, Josh.
Jennifer Folsom with her 18-year-old son, Josh.Courtesy of Jennifer Folsom.

First of all, they're fine(ish).

Like many parents across the country, I just launched my 18-year-old twin boys out of the nest. They’re both doing a gap year of public service with AmeriCorps National Civilian Conservation Corps (NCCC). Josh is in Colorado, while Will is in Iowa.

They have been experiencing dormitory living and travel with other 18- to 24-year-olds, and will be doing so for the next 10 months before heading to college next fall. While their experience is slightly different than a traditional college environment, it’s analogous to dorm life. And because we’re a couple of weeks out from other campus arrivals across the United States, it’s a bit of a sneak preview of what many families may face during these uncertain times.

Like many parents across the globe, my husband and I fretted about the health and safety of our children who wanted to make a big transition during COVID-19. But we learned about planned safety provisions, connected with NCCC leadership, put our faith in the system and set aside our well-founded fears so the boys could have an incredible experience of going out into the world to do good, especially when there is so much work to be done.

A family photo of the Folsoms at the airport before Josh and Will, 18, left for their gap year with AmeriCorps. From Left to right: Josh Folsom, Anderson Folsom, Jennifer Folsom, Will Folsom, Ben Folsom.
A family photo of the Folsoms at the airport before Josh and Will, 18, left for their gap year with AmeriCorps. From Left to right: Josh Folsom, Anderson Folsom, Jennifer Folsom, Will Folsom, Ben Folsom.Courtesy of Jennifer Folsom.

But despite strict safety protocols established by a federal agency (masks, distancing, quarantining, no roommates, etc.), my son Josh tested positive for COVID-19 with mild symptoms including a headache and lethargy, on day 11. This isn’t meant to be fear-mongering, but rather a look at the lessons l earned from being across the country from my barely-adult young sons during a global pandemic.

Anticipate that your child will likely be exposed, or test positive

Dormitories, long-established as petri dishes of germs aggregated from all over, have always been the scenes of mild (like pink eye) and serious (like meningitis) outbreaks. I am no epidemiologist, but I was a Resident Advisor (RA) in college and I know that even with excellent policies, infrastructure, and an award-winning physical plant staff, kids get sick. Know the institution's procedures, talk about it with your child and have a plan in place.

Know the protocols, but accept they may change

You’ve read the safety protocols. You’re following the breaking news on the university’s social media pages. You feel good. But the bottom line is that no one has ever lived or worked through a global pandemic like this in modern times. There is no playbook. So, while attending physicians, lawyers and higher education leaders are all making their best guesses for how this is going to go, they will have to adapt on the fly. These policies may seem arbitrary or illogical, but leaders are making decisions about the whole community. Frankly though, it’s likely you are more concerned about your kid. According to NCCC protocol, Josh will have to test negative 14 days from his positive test (not 10 days from symptoms per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and wait for those results before being released. That could be up to three weeks of isolation and quarantine. Getting through this will require patience, flexibility, trust in your institution’s leaders and acknowledgement that no one has all the answers.

Be prepared to step in and advocate for your kid

On day four of total isolation, Josh completely lost it. His meals weren’t being delivered, and he was alone, scared and hungry. I had to hack his email, track down any phone numbers I could find and escalate this to the regional director level. With the right people in the virtual room, we were able to get Josh a WiFi hotspot for internet access, delivery of some fitness bands to get a little exercise and resolved the meal delivery issue. But after eight days of being confined to his quarantine dorm room alone, with a window that doesn’t open, it still took three days of advocacy to establish protocols for getting him outside for even a little fresh air and sunshine.

Josh Folsom, 18, videoconferencing with his dad after testing positive for COVID-19.
Josh Folsom, 18, videoconferencing with his dad after testing positive for COVID-19.Courtesy of Jennifer Folsom.

Get your 18-year-old to sign a medical power of attorney

I’m not an attorney, but luckily I have a friend in the business who convinced me to get my sons to sign a medical power of attorney (POA) at their cupcake breakfast on their 18th birthdays. Despite the fact that we learned accidentally of Josh's status because a county health department contact tracer called ME instead of him (still thinking like a kid, he gave them my phone number instead of his own), you will be reminded that "He is an adult, we cannot share that information with you," as if somehow next of kin isn't important in a medical emergency or that a barely legal adult can suddenly self-advocate or sort out being 1,600 miles from home for the first time in a global pandemic. Get it signed. Then wave that medical POA proudly when you need to.

Don't ignore the mental health aspect

So far, the quarantine for Josh has been 10 times worse than any of his physical symptoms. Make sure your barely-adult child is set up with a copy of his/her insurance card, is enrolled in telehealth, has the app downloaded on his/her phone, and knows how to reach a provider (especially the mental health counselors. Know how (or if) your child’s institution will provide mental health support to those quarantined, on campus or at home.

Prepare for the quarantine

If your child is exposed or tests positive, he or she will be isolated in some form or fashion. Some institutions have dorms for quarantine, others have policies for quarantining at home. Either way, plan for these policies to change, and for the eventuality that your child will at least be exposed. Despite the fact that we have a TON of amazing friends and family in the Denver area, no one can visit Josh. Or pick him up to quarantine at THEIR house. He can't fly home. He just has to stick it out. We're Uber Eats-delivering, FaceTime-chatting, next-day Priming, and Apple TV movie-ordering our way through this.

Testing will be inconsistent

In Colorado, Josh got tested with an hour's notice and results came back in three days. AmeriCorps then required Will to get tested even though he was outside the 10-day exposure period to Josh, but had to wait a day and drive an hour through rural Iowa to get a test. There are huge disparities nationwide on testing availability and response times. Plan accordingly.

Finally, pack light

Due to different rounds of isolation, roommate problems, and quarantine, the boys have shifted rooms a combined five times in two weeks and are fortunate their whole lives fit into one duffel bag right now. There’s also the chance these kids could be back in our houses before Halloween. So, if you're heading to a dorm room, make sure it all fits in one carload.

At the time of publication, Will has tested negative, and we continue to push for a protocol that gets Josh out of COVID jail as soon as possible so that they can get on with the work of doing good in the world. Will learned last night he will spend the next nine weeks in a nearby small town in Iowa working at a food bank moving "50,000 pounds of oatmeal” and Josh is certain that his first assignment will be… contact tracing in Colorado.

Jennifer Folsom is vice president of client delivery at Washington, D.C.-based management consulting firm RIVA Solutions Inc. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband Ben and has three sons. Her practical guide to modern working motherhood," The Ringmaster," is out now.