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Editorial: Pandemic presents a generational challenge to college students

Editorial: Pandemic presents a generational challenge to college students

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Every generation thinks it will change the world.

Every generation also chafes at the generations before it, wishing they’d get out of the way so that generation could claim its rightful place in leading society.

John Kennedy spoke stirringly of one generation taking leadership from another in his famous inaugural address: “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans . . .”

Pete Townshend framed the issue more harshly when The Who sang: “Why don’t you all f-fade away / talkin’ ‘bout my generation.”

This kind of generational identity is now engrained in our culture. We give generations names now, which we didn’t used to. Neil Howe has made a whole career of writing books about generational theory. We routinely proclaim artists as the voice of their generation — Billie Eilish or Taylor Swift? One of the frustrations many voters will have this fall is that both candidates are septuagenarians in a country where we now have multiple generations clamoring for their turn to run things.

OK, boomer.

So here’s our point, and it’s addressed specifically to the college students returning to the many schools in our region — or even to those from here who are going off somewhere else.

This is your time.

One of the big questions before the country is whether we can safely reopen colleges and universities in the midst of a pandemic. Frankly, the early returns are not encouraging.

The University of North Carolina got through just one week of classes before it registered 135 virus cases — and sent students home to take classes online.

Notre Dame also got through about a week before it hit 304 cases — and also went virtual.

Virginia Tech and Radford University — both of which have students back on campus — have been luckier. For now.

Here’s the thing, students: It is really on you to make this work. That’s why we say this is your time. You didn’t ask for this, just as the generation born in the 1920s didn’t ask for a world war to fight. But it happened, and they did, and that’s why history now remembers them as “the greatest generation.” For all of you who have thought that your elders have fouled things up, well, you’re right. For all of you who thought your generation could do things better, here’s your chance to prove it.

Other generations have had to wait until they’re middle-aged or older to truly lead; you get your chance now. Are you up to it?

Back in June, Tech’s Dean of Students Byron Hughes delivered this message: “We’re actually going to need you to adult in a very different way.” Some found that amusing because of the faddish use of “adult” as a verb. But he was right. If there are going to be in-person college classes this fall — without turning schools into giant petri dishes — it’s really on you to make this experiment work. That won’t be easy, because it means giving up many of the things that historically have defined the college experience. Big parties, for instance. Radford University just suspended three students for “endangering conduct” and failure to comply with public health rules. Virginia Tech suspended seven. We hate to be hard-butts — we’d rather use a more colorful word but some readers have more fragile sensibilities —but good for Tech and Radford. However, it can’t be just up to the administration to punish rule-breakers after the fact. Students have to heed those rules —and call out their fellow classmates who disregard them. Apparently the Radford students who got suspended were hosting big parties — after being warned that was against the rules. Hosting them was bad — but so was attending. The virus doesn’t care who’s the host and who just happens to be there.

There are things that adults — by which we mean older adults, because college students are adults — can and should do, too. Liberty University has been lax about testing football players — lax as in it hasn’t done so for two weeks because nobody has shown symptoms. And yet it’s well-established that people who don’t show symptoms can still carry and pass on the virus. Liberty is scheduled to play three Atlantic Coast Conference teams this fall — North Carolina State, Syracuse and Virginia Tech. Richmond Times-Dispatch sportswriter David Teel wrote (in a story we carried) that “absent convincing proof that Liberty has kept its vow, ACC teams should cancel those games.” He’s right. Better those teams give up one game than give up an entire season, which is what’s at stake. (You’d think that Liberty wouldn’t want to endanger the chance of playing three ACC teams. Then again, you’d think Liberty wouldn’t want to endanger its own students, either).

It’s pretty clear that the adults in charge of America have made an utter hash of things. That applies to both politicians and ordinary citizens who act as if they can carry on as they always have — without masks or social distancing. They are effectively collaborating with the enemy — the enemy here being a pernicious little virus — and endangering their fellow citizens. It’s hard to reason with unreasonable people. All we can do is point out the ugly facts. The United States is running 16,547 virus cases per 1 million people. That rate puts us in the same category as Armenia, Brazil and Oman and just behind Panama and French Guiana. How did we wind up in such company? Put another way: How did the world’s superpower wind up as such a public health basket case? Bad political decisions, for sure, but also lots of bad decisions by ordinary people who just had to take that trip to Myrtle Beach. Our neighbors aren’t in this bad shape — the rate in Mexico is 4,165 per million; in Canada, 3,271. Some have pointed to Sweden, a country that famously resisted lockdowns and instead simply asked its people to be careful. Its virus rate is four times that of its immediate neighbors (Sweden is 8,457; Norway is 1,865; Finland is 1,403). But even Sweden’s rate is only half ours, which means we’re twice as worse off as a country that basically did nothing. That’s because Swedes generally were careful and we haven’t been. We’ve been partying through a pandemic; this is what we get for it.

If we want to have college this fall, students will have to act better than their parents have. Can you? Here’s your chance to take charge. Don’t blow it the way we have.

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