You know the saying, “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want?” 2020 is setting itself up to be a year full of experience. If you’re a parent of a high school senior trying to select a college (that you likely can’t visit), here are some things you can do to learn more, because a crisis like COVID-19 forces colleges and universities to show their hands.

First and foremost, look at the school’s overall response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Do they have a link to their most-current information on the home page of their website? Can you access the communication history? What kinds of resources are they providing to assist students in transitioning to remote learning, including moving assistance? Are they adjusting costs, continuing financial aid, and supporting students who can’t return home?

You may have to do some navigation to learn about financial aid and other financial pieces like refunds of residence hall fees. There are several areas where schools have some latitude:

  • Refunding or pro-rating housing and meal plan costs. There will be considerable variance from school to school, based on several factors: Students on semesters have likely already fully paid residence hall costs and are expecting a refund, whereas those on quarters often have not paid the spring quarter cost. And of course, in an era of tuition discounting, many schools rely on room and board to make their budgets work.
  • Continuation of financial aid awards including work-study. The Department of Education committed to funding work-study awards regardless of whether the student is working, as long as the college continues funding the award. Even at colleges who are continuing work-study funding, this may be determined on a case-by-case basis. Colleges that include room and board stipends in their financial aid awards may or may not be providing stipends for students who have returned home.
  • Housing options for students who cannot return home. Again, much depends on the university’s situation including whether they have the means to isolate or quarantine students.

Virtually every school has a parents’ page on Facebook, too. You should join those to get a sense of whether parents feel their students are being supported in this transition. (Note that as in so many aspects of life, complainers tend to be far more vocal than those who think positive.) And if your student hasn’t already done so, they should join the admitted students social media groups for all schools to which they’ve been accepted. Just as so many other things have changed in the past 10 days, so too may your and your student’s priorities for the fall. You will find additional resources in these areas such as student-run mutual assistance pages.

Remember too that as the economic impact of COVID-19 becomes more clear, families may need to appeal financial aid awards. The process for need-based financial aid is called Professional Judgement (PJ) and requires that students request a review of their situation from the school; the school is only allowed to adjust based on new data inputs reflecting changed circumstances. The Department of Education’s page on coronavirus is here.

Many schools are also moving back their acceptance dates from May 1 to June 1 to give students more time to consider and potentially visit campuses. Please keep in mind if you intend to visit a campus that many students still live on campus without an option to go home, and many residence halls to not have the ability to quarantine or isolate students in the event that the virus is brought to campus by an infected visitor. Please do the public service of staying home for now. You have many other ways of getting to know your potential schools, and if you go now, you will not get any real sense of what campus life is like.

What’s going on with my kiddos? My son was already on spring break when his school announced its transition to remote learning. My daughter’s quarter was supposed to wrap up this Friday but that accelerated pretty quickly; my husband flew out to Chicago this morning to help her pack up and come home tonight.

My son’s school posted their housing refund policies yesterday. Students have a choice of receiving a cash refund or a credit towards next year’s on-campus housing. Those choosing the credit will get close to a full refund; those requesting cash will get half as much. He attends an out-of-state flagship public school, and we understand that most housing costs cover staffing costs and any money we get refunded comes out of the state’s pocket, money that might be needed more urgently elsewhere. The school has a contracted service that will pack up a student’s room and either put items in storage or send them home. We are hoping to hire one of his friends who lives in the area instead. Unused funds in his meal plan will roll over to next school year. His plan is value-based, however; students with swipe-based plans have been offered different options. The school is keeping residence halls and meal services open even though they have moved to remote learning, and it sounds like a number of students who did not go home for spring break have opted to stay there even though classes will not meet in person. (Of course, you have to move out and return your room key to get a refund.) And students who live off-campus are most likely stuck with their leases, though we hear anecdotally from our own kids and from friends that many such students are remaining in the area.

My daughter’s school is closing residence halls and waiving all room and board costs for spring quarter. I feel that her school– University of Chicago– has done an exemplary job in dealing with this issue, with clear and regular communication on this topic dating back to January. They have given professors discretion in terms of administering final exams for this quarter as well; most of my daughter’s became optional so that students who have put a lot into the course have an opportunity to show it, whereas those experiencing trauma or wishing to leave campus early as a result of this are not penalized. They have arranged for move-out assistance and airport shuttles, and the students have set up a mutual assistance page that includes offers of assistance from local families. The university is offering housing to students who cannot return home; however, staying requires completing an application detailing the student’s circumstances and all who stay are being moved to a residence hall that allows for social distancing and potential isolation or quarantine.

It is heartbreaking to watch all these kids return home and isolate from a point in life where they should be embracing and exploring the world. I can’t help but think back to my senior year in college, when the Berlin Wall fell and it felt like anything was possible. Let’s all do our part to recreate that for our students and their generation.