On Saturday, March 7, Pippa took a shuttle to the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, to catch a plane to Colorado to visit her grandmother for college spring break. The coronavirus was a thing then, but not a super duper thing.
Pippa had a two week break, and she planned the second week at home in Baltimore, before she headed back to school in Ohio for the rest of the semester.
But during her time in Colorado, conditions rapidly deteriorated. By Tuesday, March 10, I read that Harvard was transitioning to online learning for the rest of the semester. I exchanged texts with Pippa that evening, and she didn’t take the news well:
Two days later, on March 12, we received an email from the college saying that the end of spring break would be extended at least two weeks.
At that point, I was skeptical – I thought things were overblown. Typically, that’s my default outlook on things. Big bureaucracies, like governments and colleges, have become wildly risk averse, due to lawsuits, and insurance costs, and not wanting to be second-guessed for their decisions.
My skepticism has served me well – it gives me permission to sneer at the local school officials for cancelling classes based on a forecast (a forecast!!) of wintry weather, or my favorite, when stiff winds caused schools to shutter. Here is a word-for-word transcription from March 2, 2018:
I wake up Pippa: Schools are closed.
Me: It’s a little windy.
Pippa: Ahhh, the best snow days are the ones you don’t know are coming.
Me, triggered: There’s no snow! There’s no blazing heat! There’s no frigid cold! Do they think kids get to school via empty tractor trailers over the Bay Bridge?
Pippa: Shhh, I’m trying to sleep.
I come by it naturally. My parents are even more skeptical of these things. When Pippa was in Colorado, they were on vacation in Australia, with no urgency to fly home. When I texted mom that Maryland’s Governor Hogan had shut schools for two weeks, she didn’t mince words:
As a Christian, I trust God’s plan for my life, and when it will end. But that doesn’t mean I should be careless or daredevil-y. I want to go to heaven, but heaven can wait; I’ve got things to do, and hopefully God will use some of these things for good.
Before long, Pippa’s college went full online for the rest of the semester, and we adjusted to the new normal. She is a first-year student, so it wasn’t much of a change – we just reverted to our setup from a few months previous. (And honestly, I was just grateful this hadn’t upended her senior year of high school a year prior.)
One thing that was different: we were all home all the time. With the Maryland schools shutdown, Grey was high school distance learning, and both Nora and I were told to stay home and telecommute. We felt thankful to both still be pulling a paycheck that wasn’t virtual, but there were other challenges.
Who’s Hogging the Wi-Fi?
A major issue was Internet bandwidth.
We had 2 mbps Verizon DSL and with Grey streaming physics lectures, and Pippa Microsoft Teams-ing Spanish class, and Nora Zoom-ing her school colleagues, I was struggling to get my emails to come in.
Within a week, I called in reinforcements:
Suddenly, we were getting 160 mbps (80x more than before!), according to the speed check I ran. Our Xfinity plan calls for 300 mbps, but you know how that goes. I’ll do a dedicated post soon on our new setup and the net cost of this transition, so stay tuned.
Where’s the Beef…and Chips…and Ice Cream?
Another issue was groceries. Four of us eating three meals a day (plus snacking), was inflating our grocery bill like a balloon.
Also, there was the issue of actually acquiring the food. Nora’s not much of a news hound, but she was clicking on every virus-related news alert and following the Johns Hopkins infection chart like a baseball fanatic pouring over box scores.
Hyperaware and a natural rules-follower anyway, Nora had the family on full lockdown. On March 15, we made an early morning foray to Safeway to find one package of chicken remaining.
That was my last trip to a grocery store. Since then, we have been receiving deliveries from Aldi’s.
It’s not a bad deal. The first three deliveries are ‘free’ though you still pay a $5 ‘service fee.’ Then you also decide how much you want to tip the shopper/driver, who is the same person. After the first three, the delivery is $4 if you pick their less-busy delivery days, plus the $5 service fee, plus any tip.
A bonus: the Aldi system screwed up and delivered the same $100 order twice, three days apart. I’m not sure what happened and we reported that we weren’t charged for the second delivery, but the two extra tubs of cookie dough ice cream were definitely appreciated.
We also receive a $30 box of produce from Hungry Harvest every two weeks. I gave that to Nora for her birthday in July 2019, because that’s the type of gift you give someone you’ve been married to for 20+ years, and she loves their mission of rescuing food that would normally be trashed. And now that they’ve been overwhelmed by orders and are no longer taking new customers, I feel like a prescient genius.
Room & Board Refund
It’s not all cash out. Pippa’s college sent an email on April 2 with details on a partial room and board refund:
The college’s total room and board charge for 2019-’20 is $12,250 and spring break is exactly three-quarters of the way through the year, so by rights we were due a $3,062 refund.
Still, a $2,408 refund was better than I expected. Most colleges have fairly fixed expenses (labor and buildings mostly) and reducing them quickly can’t happen without causing major issues. Sure, the college could reduce food purchases, but surely this size refund would cause the college to dip into its reserves.
I checked with a couple friends and relatives to see what other schools are doing:
- Geneva College – issued $2,000 room and board refund
- York College of Pennsylvania – as of this week, is still “exploring adjustments to fees”
- University of Maryland – refunding 51% of semester room fee, 55% of board, 51% of parking, and $378 of mandatory fees for FT undergraduates
- Liberty University – offering a $1,000 credit for the fall, which spurred a federal class action lawsuit for its paltriness
Pippa’s college gave the option to accept the refund as a fall credit, or an immediate refund. Normally, I’m all about the cash, but because it will help the school, and we can afford to, we are accepting the fall credit. Some liberal arts colleges were struggling even before the virus.
In the college parent Facebook group, one intrepid mother asked whether the school would refund some tuition also, since the transition to online learning had been uneven in her view. The college group admin has since deleted that post 🙂 but not before a number of parents replied, in essence: get over it, they are doing the best they can.
Now I’m off to pursue other possible refunds. We haven’t heard a peep from GEICO even though we back up a Brinks truck to their door every 6 months, to pay for car insurance.
In the past, I understood that this is a normal cost of doing life. But when I have to clear spider webs when I get into the car, something’s gotta give.