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Are You Ready for Grand Experiment 2?

by on August 19, 2020 5:00 AM

Nothing came of it, but during a kaffeeklatsch I attended in Holmes-Foster Park last week (don’t worry, each of us had his own picnic table), somebody proposed a betting pool: How long until Penn State tells its students to “pack up?”

I use quotation marks because the sloganeers in Old Main hope slapping “Mask Up or Pack Up” stickers on every door, wall, window, pole and forehead will goad students into being good coronavirus citizens when classes start next week.

I hope so too. I’d have picked October 1 as shutdown day if we’d gone ahead with our pool, but it would have given me no pleasure to win. 

Pool or no pool, I haven’t talked to anyone who thinks live instruction will last until Thanksgiving, the official pack up, go home and don’t come back until after New Year’s date. Year-round residents have been prepping for the start of the Fall semester like it’s an approaching tornado. The local version of Uncle Henry, Hunk (Scarecrow), Hickory (Tin Man) and Zeke (Cowardly Lion) trying to round up the horses and Auntie Em trying to round up Dorothy is folks stocking up on groceries and squeezing in a last medical or dental appointment so we can barricade ourselves in for the duration. “Everybody in the storm cellar!” says Uncle Henry — Dorothy or no Dorothy.

The most charitable souls among us bear the students no ill will. They can’t help it if their brains are like under-cooked scrambled eggs until they turn 25, so of course they’re going to party like it’s 2019, football or no football.

Could be we’re underestimating those frontal lobes. Most students, I’d wager, want this -- let’s call it Grand Experiment 2 in honor of Joe Paterno’s success-with-honor Grand Experiment in the 1960s – to work. When they returned to the nest last spring, they probably appreciated all that home cookin’ – until they began to weary of the company of the home cooks. 

The feeling might have been mutual. However much they love each other, middle-aged parents and not-quite-adult children inhabit different worlds, which makes it hard for them to live in the same house. 

And don’t forget, the only difference between a kid at college and a kid at summer camp is that the college kid has to do the bidding of people with advanced degrees.

The other thing just about everybody is really tired of: Zooming. I think of the scene in my favorite Woody Allen movie where the title character, Broadway Danny Rose, distributes frozen turkey dinners to his Thanksgiving guests, one of whom graciously says that “the frozen is just as good as the real.” Yeah, right.

Normally, I love the the buzz of all of us back on campus and back in town. I like meeting my classes, seeing people I haven’t seen all summer, resuming doorway chats with colleagues. I was particularly looking forward to diving back into my Penn State life this fall after being on sabbatical leave for the past year.  

Instead, I’ll be home most days, spending even more time than usual staring at screens. I can’t complain: I chose to teach online rather than breathe that sweet classroom air. Am I excited about it, though? Uh, no. 

But here’s the deal, as President-elect Biden would say (won’t it be nice to be able to write that in November – or December, or whenever they finish counting and possibly recounting the votes?). Even if an overwhelming majority of the students mask up, wash up and distance up, a certain percentage, either because they’re clueless or careless or defiant in that charming MAGA-QAnon way, will not. 

Even we oldsters, whose frontal lobes are becoming, if anything, overcooked, notice a certain slippage in our masks and our social distancing awareness when we’ve a drop taken. Now think about the many, many drops taken around here on a typical weekend (collegiate weekends running from Wednesday through Sunday, don’t forget). The best of intentions will dissolve in a thousand red plastic cups. 

Consider what’s been reported at schools that have already opened: Twenty-three COVID-19 cases at a sorority house at Oklahoma State. One hundred seventy-seven cases at the University of North Carolina (at this writing). Photos and videos of large, unmasked crowds at parties and bars in college towns across the land. 

A quote from a UNC administrator is revealing: 

"It has been heartening to hear reports from faculty and staff and to experience for myself the excellent compliance on campus this week," he wrote. "Our goal, certainly, is full participation…”

That was last week. This week, UNC pulled the plug.

So there you go: Excellent compliance short of full participation is a recipe for packing up and going home long before the turkey’s in the oven.

Or as Professor Marvel (aka The Wiz) puts it: “There’s a storm blowin’ up – a whopper.” 


A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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