Dr. Debra Furr-Holden and Olivia Holden

Difficult conversations are taking place across the country as young adults prepare the start of their college careers. Dr. Debra Furr-Holden shares her experience from home as an epidemiologist, public health expert, and Mom of three college students. "My youngest, Olivia, graduated high school this year. When her college informed us that they were receiving students on campus, I was sure she would make the ‘right choice.’ On decision day, she simply said, ‘I’m going.’  I was shocked."  

August 20, 2020

I am a Mom epidemiologist of three college students.  My children are 22, 20, and 18.  The youngest, Olivia, graduated high school this year. She missed all of the usual rites of passage American graduates experience – senior skip day, senior prom, walking across the stage, and the last hoorah of being the eldest on campus.  She received her diploma in a drive-thru ceremony that I filmed using a selfie stick and my cell phone. 

Olivia and her brother and sister grew up in public health, occasionally sitting in the back of lecture halls at Johns Hopkins with coloring books -- taking it all in. At the same time, I did early evening study sessions with students. By age 9, she knew the difference between incidence and prevalence and could tell you about the great work of John Snow stopping the spread of cholera. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, she has been a credible messenger for her peers and also been vigilant in hand hygiene, masking up, and practicing social distancing. I was sad to watch this crisis mar her big year, but in her words, ‘these are first world problems.’  She is more amazing than I could ever describe in words. 

I think we all hoped this pandemic would have been controlled by now. When her college informed the students and parents that they were opening and receiving students on campus, I was sure she would make the ‘right choice.’  She’s heard me on Zooms and national media advocating against school re-opening. In my professional opinion, we are not ready.  There are too many unknowns and a lack of community-wide testing in school-aged children, including college students.  There are more unknowns than solutions.

I am not a heavy-handed parent. I trust that what my children have heard, seen, and experienced has set the foundation for them to make informed decisions. I once held the strong position that I was the ‘keeper of their futures’ and made decisions for them until they were able to make well-informed decisions for themselves.  I trusted that Olivia was able to make this decision for herself.

On decision day, she simply said, ‘I’m going.’  I was shocked.  How could she come to this conclusion?  She told me the testing protocol at her college and reminded me that despite being around people who tested positive, she had not contracted the virus.  She gave back my own words . . . ‘honor the protocols.’  She reassured me if the promises made by her college were not honored and enforced, she would return home.

Move-in day was quite a pleasant surprise.  All parents and students were masked up.  Her dorm room, designed for two students, was now a room for one.  She has had two days of her freshman year in the college experience and says ’so far, so good.’ We agreed she would be tested on campus once every two weeks, which is available for free to students. We plan to stay in communication about this seminal transition in her life and her experiences related to COVID exposure and on-campus practices.

This choice was hers to make.  I would have made a different choice and am happy that my two older children’s schools opted to move all classes online for the fall semester. As a Mom epidemiologist, I have a deeper appreciation for the power of choice but remain committed to the power of public health.

Where are we now?
In less than one-week, Olivia is packing up her room and headed home for the first year of her undergrad experience. The protocols were not being honored or enforced on campus.

Her choice to reverse her decision demonstrates her ability to use critical decision-making skills and to pivot. It is never too late to change your mind, even on the biggest decisions of your life. These are all valuable life lessons that have empowered my girl to use her voice and exercise her freedom to choose her own path.

Olivia will still have her freshman year of college experience, it will be different than what she had planned, but it will still be hers. She will be taking classes online and from the safety of her home where the protocols are honored.

Read more: A portion of Dr. Debra Furr-Holden's personal narrative was originally published in Working Mother Magazine in an article titled, 5 Epidemiologists and Public Health Moms Share their Children’s Back-to-School Plans.