Dip a COVID-cautious toe in cruise waters

We maintain a COVID-cautious* household as the third pandemic summer waxes. Where one member of our family is at high risk, we all choose to modify our daily behaviors to continue to protect him.

This is a cost of multi-generational living, though I find the personal and familial benefits of sharing our home with an elder abundant and easily justified. Since we can afford all the masks and testing we need, expending this trivial effort is well worth it. That’s the calculus in our home.Disposable surgical mask

Given our status, then, as “more careful than most,” it may surprise some that we plan to embark on a cruise with our teens in a little more than a month. Cruising, after all, gave the world its first widely reported COVID-19 super-spreader event.

Read a CDC research paper on the epidemiology of the Diamond Princess outbreak in February 2020 here.Cruise line booking page headlined 37 days before you leave with photos of Icelandic ports

There’s no doubt that the closed environment of a cruise ship offers a unique opportunity for certain germs to infect a captive audience of susceptible passengers. Many minds will leap immediately to norovirus. In truth, however, norovirus is common everywhere, but an outbreak is much more noticeable when a group of thousands travels en masse for seven or more days and management is required to track cases on board.

Similarly, though COVID-19 is definitively joining current passengers on cruise ships—in spite of requirements for vaccination and pre-embarkation testing—there is little evidence that the virus passes between personal staterooms via HVAC or other means. Actual contact tracing of ship-acquired infections, as on land, suggests spread directly from infected person to uninfected person.2012 Carnival cruise Saint John NB Canada - 3

The greater risk on a cruise comes from queuing to board or partake in activities, eating or drinking in common facilities, or from socializing with other guests. More bodies in close proximity invites more infections. It’s math, not a magical zone of infection brought on by taking a ship out to sea.

Why, then, if we remain vigilant and siloed on land, is my family setting sail?

Like many, the pandemic disrupted our travel plans in 2020. For us, the result was a Future Cruise Credit (a.k.a., an F.C.C.). Cruise Critic defines Future Cruise Credits here.

We could have requested a cash refund when COVID-19 kept us from our 2020 voyage between Copenhagen and Boston. Instead, we opted to gamble on the future solvency of Holland America Line (HAL) and took the F.C.C. instead. Part of my personal rationale was the simple desire to see HAL survive the economic hit of the sudden shutdown.

The major down side to any credit like this is the set of contingencies for spending it. Unless we wanted to argue over the details of the F.C.C. we’d accepted, we had to book a cruise before the end of 2022.Pile of money

Here’s the key to why my family is cruising this summer: we’re not all going. While our 2020 trip would have included a grandparent, our 2022 party consists only of parents and children. All of us are vaccinated, boosted, and at statistically low risk of COVID-19 complications if infected. Our high risk loved ones are not inclined to sail at this time.

For those of us embarking on a pandemic-era Holland America Line cruise, we are opting in based upon a few important understandings:

  • We realize that we will be taking a greater risk of catching COVID-19 than we do at home, but we have decided that this risk is worth the benefit of a relaxing vacation together with the reward of a chance to visit foreign destinations long on our wish list(s).
  • We prefer the risk of being cruise ship passengers over that of unmasked air travel for the summer of 2022, especially given recent frequent flight cancellations and spectacular, hours’ long delays reported at major airports worldwide. We don’t have to fly to get to our embarkation/debarkation port, and we won’t have to leave** our cabin once aboard a ship unless we want to.
  • We booked two staterooms for our party of four, and one of them is a suite° with an extra large balcony. This is more space than we have ever paid for in the past, but we believe we might prefer to remain mostly cloistered while at sea, depending upon COVID case rates when and where we sail. We decided we wouldn’t travel without private access to fresh air, i.e., a balcony.
  • We reserved an additional, extra-fee private outdoor space for this sailing—on HAL’s fleet, these are dubbed Cabanas, placed in a restricted access area called the Retreat, and, again, booking one is a first for us—so we will have a dedicated area beyond our cabins to spend time if case rates exceed our comfort thresholds.
  • We’re prepared to skip going ashore at early stops in easily reached ports close to home in order to increase the odds*** we stay healthy for visits to rare, “bucket list” destinations further afield.
  • We’re each packing extra amusements that will allow any one of us to spend days on end alone in a room, and I’ve beefed up the travel medicine kit.
  • And, perhaps most important of all, we are setting sail having decided in advance that even isolating in our staterooms—aside from accessing our cabana via the stairs, no elevators—would be “enough” vacation to make the entire trip worthwhile. Dining on room service and entertaining ourselves on a balcony at sea will be sufficient, if not ideal. If we also get to enjoy the rest of the ship’s public amenities, all the better.

Until our embarkation, we won’t really know which activities will or won’t meet our risk tolerance and feel worthwhile. This is a higher than usual level of uncertainty for me to embrace. I acknowledge I can be prone to anxiety; I’m better known for demanding control than going with the flow.2012 Carnival cruise Saint John NB Canada - 1

Living through a pandemic serves to remind me, though, that life is short, and opportunities not taken can be lost forever. We have educated ourselves about the current situation with the virus, and we’ve prepared as best we can for such unpleasant scenarios as believing the risk of infection too high to risk socializing aboard ship or catching COVID at sea.

My kids are growing up fast. One will be moving away from home for the first time in just a couple of months. I want to take us all on one more vacation before it becomes necessary to negotiate with yet another adult life and all its mature entanglements to get away together.Woman hugs child

COVID-19 stole from everyone: lives, time, opportunities… I can’t know for certain that our cruise will be smooth sailing, but, if my analysis is correct, it should be worth the risk.

* Since there is no universal definition for “being careful” with regards to COVID, I’ll post mine. Our household choices in June 2022 continue to include:

  • limiting time inside any building beyond our home with the exception of one child who goes to school/camp in person,
  • wearing masks indoors anywhere but at home,
  • requesting that all visitors or tradespeople entering our home wear a mask,
  • wearing masks outdoors where social distancing isn’t possible,
  • antigen testing the kid who attends school/camp every weekend before he spends one unmasked afternoon per week with his grandfather (otherwise, that kid masks around Grandpa),
  • antigen testing our occasional visitors before eating or drinking with them,
  • only eating or drinking with visitors to our home outdoors or at a distance of ~10+ feet indoors.

We use—and offer those entering our home—several styles of N95, KN94, and surgical masks to ensure all this masking is as efficacious as possible. Even within the family, our faces don’t fit the same masks well.

See the CDC epidemiology paper referenced in paragraph three. The following quote comes from the Discussion section of that report, and it matches what I’ve read elsewhere over the past two years following pandemic news coverage:

“Spatial clustering was not identified on a specific deck or zone, and transmission does not seem to have spread to neighboring cabins, implying that droplet or contact transmission to nearby cabins was not the major mode of infection. Risk of infection did increase with cabin occupancy, but a relatively small proportion of cases in the same cabin had >4 days between their onsets, implying a common source of infection. Beyond that, however, the major transmission routes might include a common source outside the cabin and aerosolized fomite or contact transmission across different deck levels.”

I feel it is only fair to disclose that we had only paid a deposit for a fraction of the total cost, not the full fare for our cancelled 2020 vacation. Wagering many thousands of dollars would have felt foolish to me in support of a corporation, but a few hundred was an amount I could afford to lose with equanimity.

In particular, I found the crew aboard my past HAL sailing to be simultaneously professional and amiable. Keeping this subsidiary of Carnival Corporation in the black seemed likely to keep more of these excellent employees on the payroll during a bleak time.

**Apart from the mandatory muster—or lifeboat—drill. Cruise ships rightly enforce the requirement that every person aboard learns what to do in the unlikely event of an emergency at sea. Due to COVID, these are now conducted with less crowding and standing around in large groups than they used to entail.

°This will be our first experience of the Holland America Line suite category NS, or a Neptune Suite. The corner aft NS we chose is known for its exceptionally large balcony that wraps around the side and back of the ship, offering seating with more likelihood of shade-, sun-, or wind- protection than a standard balcony would.

***Testing positive for COVID-19 aboard a ship means a passenger will be quarantined according to that ship’s specific procedures. On HAL, last I heard, quarantined passengers are required to move to a balcony stateroom in a reserved section of rooms set aside and dedicated to housing those with COVID. On other lines, passengers quarantine in the stateroom they originally booked. In most cases reported by Cruise Critic board members, partners are given the option to stay together or lodge apart assuming only one tests positive.

We aren’t sure what will happen if both parents test positive but the young adults don’t, but we’re ready to live with the consequences either way.

These policies could change at any time, however, and I have read anecdotal evidence of ships adjusting rules on the fly by necessity when more passengers require quarantine than there were dedicated cabins for the sick.

What if student loan forgiveness were tied to public college costs?

Some American politicians want to forgive all student loan debt. I disagree with this notion, mostly because I think many private colleges are now charging a ridiculous, inflated price, not supported by evidence of their inherent value to the individual or to society.

I am all in for learning. I want more kids to earn the benefit of a meaningful education that supports their personal and career goals. I believe that our entire society would benefit if we did a better job teaching our children, from cradle to adulthood.

I agree that our current system is dysfunctional. My opinion is that reforms should aim to correct something more fundamental than the particular loans taken by students who have already left the system. The pricing structure for a university education should be made more rational, not cloaked in additional government intervention.

I don’t want my government paying current “list prices” for private colleges for every student—already a narrow group, disproportionately representing our richest, most privileged children—and especially so when younger, more vulnerable pupils fail to learn in crumbling buildings with more attention paid to test scores than human potential in our mediocre K-12 system.school supplies - 1

That being said, I am also on the side of those who argue that our system is inherently unfair and biased against the scores of bright, motivated students often representing the first generation of their families to reach higher education. The financial aid system is byzantine; true costs of attendance are cloaked by “merit aid” and government contributions based on “need” can’t be assessed without filling out reams of paperwork.

The less experience one’s family has with American higher education as a system, the harder it is to understand any of it at a glance, or even with a great deal of study! Actual costs are opaque. It’s hard to even justify paying a $75 fee to apply to a university whose website says it charges $75,000 per year when your parents earn $7.25* per hour.

That those are real figures which just happen to look like an elegant visual numerical alliteration is the best thing that happened to me today.40 hours per week times federal minimum wage equals $290 gross take home paySure, fee waivers are available, but how many times does a poor student deserve to be reminded of his deprivation within a single application process? And high school seniors apply to around seven colleges each. math written out 7 times 75 dollars equals $525

Imagine being the 17 year old high school senior, living in poverty, who has to say:

“Hey, Mom, can I have two full weeks’ of your take home pay to buy the privilege of applying for the chance of spending more than five times your annual earnings every year for the next four years to get educated? Yup, that’s right, Mom. The webpage says the price for a college degree is 20 times what you earn per annum.”

Of course financial aid is available to those who qualify; the vast majority (86%) of American students receive some financial assistance towards paying for college. To qualify for aid requires one to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA.) That process takes about an hour… if you have ready access to recent financial records and tax returns plus social security numbers for both yourself and your parents.

Aside from the insanity of the FAFSA using a different definition of “dependent child” from the same U.S. government’s Internal Revenue Service (IRS), there is also literally no recourse for a student under age 21 whose parents won’t provide their financial records for the purpose of filling out the form.

Per the Filling Out the FAFSA® Form › Reporting Parent Information page:

“…if your parents don’t support you and refuse to provide their information on the application, you may submit your FAFSA form without their information. However, you won’t be able to get any federal student aid other than an unsubsidized loan—and even that might not happen.”

Until you are age 24—if you’re unlucky enough to have unsupportive parents—unless you can prove via written records that they are in jail, that you had “an abusive family environment” (remember: proof required!), you can’t find your folks at all, or you are over 21 and also “either homeless or self-supporting and at risk of being homeless,” it’s hard to know whether completing the FAFSA will even be worth the effort.

The travail of merely filling out the FAFSA, appears to prevent kids from under-served communities from even approaching applications to higher education.

Oh yeah, and the federal government audits a disproportionate number of financial aid applications submitted by young adults from neighborhoods where the majority of the population is comprised of people of color.

COVID-19 has increased the size of all of these hurdles, apparently. Rates of application to community colleges, for financial aid, etc., have all plummeted in 2020-21 for precisely those students who would benefit most by furthering their educations—those born under a burden of poverty, placed there by circumstance, but forced to carry it on each young back until the lucky ones access the tools required for self-liberation. Education is the most common lever used to pry that burden off.

Go ahead and add that loss to the half a million lives cut short, and tack the cost onto the pandemic’s final bill.

Pile of moneyIt is an indisputable fact that the United States has systematically de-funded public colleges and universities within the span of my lifetime, rendering even “public” universities difficult to access for all but the wealthiest students. To me, that represents an utter failure of public higher education, a human service that is so important to our nation’s civic character and economic growth that I would consider it part of our basic infrastructure.

By definition, I believe public education should be attainable** by 100% of the citizenry.

A recent Boston Globe article detailed a tug of war between the Biden administration which proposes $10,000 per student in loan forgiveness vs. a progressive position championed by Elizabeth Warren and others to forgive $50,000 per student.

Here’s my response: why not tie governmental student loan forgiveness amounts to public college tuition and fees? Whether this is a federal average, rates for institutions in the region where s/he got her education, or the price where s/he lives now, at least this figure would remain tied to some actual, real cost of higher education as it changes over time.

Yet that public tuition rate should also reflect an efficient system, one hopes, seeking to offer a good return on the state’s investment in its future taxpayers. Without the option for limitless borrowing to go elsewhere, the discretionary facilities arms race of ever grander stadiums and shinier, newer dorms to entice potential first years should slow, if not stop altogether.

Typical colleges would have an incentive to keep their published tuition rates aligned to what borrowers could reasonably find the means to pay. Elite universities might maintain higher prices, but their rich endowments would continue to make generous aid packages possible for anyone they chose to admit.

View of community college building on campusGovernment regulations tied to hard figures always end up skewed by inflation; income and prices change year by year, typically trending upwards. The Alternative Minimum Tax, for example, was designed to apply to very high income earners who were taking “too many” legitimate deductions, but now it routinely catches upper middle class, dual income families in expensive coastal cities in an indiscriminate dragnet while much richer folks pay money managers to hide and protect larger assets.

I’m imagining a scenario where a billionaire politician could pay only $750 in federal taxes while those of us earning far less pay many thousands more…

It strikes me as fundamentally fair and equitable for students electing to attend private colleges to remain entitled to their share of government help, but not necessarily more help than those who opt for public institutions. This would act as a brake on runaway tuition hikes overall while never preventing any private entity from charging whatever it wishes. That seems like common sense, and protective of the public interest.

Another idea that can only be addressed at the federal level would be to offer international skilled worker visas preferentially to companies that implement effective training programs for American workers simultaneously. Those same corporations could sponsor scholarships for domestic students—or create in house programs for local unemployed or underemployed citizens—on a some-to-one or even one-to-one basis for future hires. No reasonable person should expect businesses to hire employees incapable of filling the requirements of a particular role, but our government could ask that those allowed to important talent also take part in reducing that same need going forward.

The U.S. Government should remain involved in higher education. Without an educated populace, the chance that America remains a global superpower rapidly dwindles to near zero. Power—and the money that goes with it—flows to those who control the currency of the day. In 2021, information and technology reign supreme in that arena. The field depends upon a trained workforce to function, though, and there aren’t enough Americans with the requisite skills to fill open positions in U.S. technology firms today. I haven’t seen much evidence to suggest that those odds are improving, either.

The pandemic’s winnowing of the best and brightest poor students in the United States from the ladder of upward mobility via advanced degrees will damage our ability as a nation to compete in the global marketplace, and never mind the real, tragic human cost to those young souls. The ideal role central government can play in education is to ensure equitable access to it for the broadest possible swathe of the populace. Financial Aid is a means to that end, but the American version is a tool that requires sharpening to be used to better effect.

In the meantime, if you are trying to figure out how much college costs right now, be aware that American colleges and universities are required to offer a “net price calculator” somewhere on their websites. Search for it directly from your web browser as some institutions bury this useful tool deep under their admissions information. Also consider Googling the “common data set” for any university you are considering; this standardized form is where U.S. News & World Reports and all those other comparison sites get their college facts. Section H2 will give you a lot of information about how many students receive both need-based and merit aid at the school you are considering.

I’m fundamentally academic by nature. I left the workforce to devote many of my prime earning years toward the education of my own children. I believe in the transformative power of learning to change peoples’ lives for the better.

Finding an “average price” for college is not straightforward because of the obfuscation about which I’m complaining! Here’s an entire article going into detail about how “net price” differs from official tuition figures, and also separating out the living expenses which paid for by the same source: typically, financial aid. From that US News & World Report article, I got an average price for public colleges of $9,687 compared with $35,087 at private ones. That said, we must recognize that Harvard College’s 2020-21 undergraduate tuition may be $49,653 with fees of $4,315, while its actual, billed “cost of attendance” is $72,357. Tuition itself is almost irrelevant in this discussion, because that latter amount is what “financial aid” would cover.

Harvard hides its tuition information, by the way, not even providing a direct link on its admission page. I had to search for “tuition,” and, not coincidentally, that was the top search term on their FAQ page. Instead of making its price easy to find, Harvard inundates the admission seeking high school student with multiple pages extolling their rich and abundant financial aid offerings. That’s all well and good because such a large proportion of the student body receives aid, but it precisely underscores my point that the system as it stands is wildly complex at the expense of the well being of the student population.

* US Federal minimum wage as of 2020 is $7.25 per hour

** I specifically mean attainable financially here. I do not believe that 100% of the human population should attend traditional colleges and universities, and I think the push in that direction does a disservice to those with inclinations outside of the classroom. If it were up to me, we would have a national network of trade schools administered much like the community colleges, and with identical access to easy, straightforward financial aid for those who need it.

I would argue that it remains imperative for colleges and universities to maintain academic entrance standards. Some students will be excluded because not everyone develops the intellectual capacity for the most abstract forms of thinking, but I’ve never seen credible evidence that this kind of aptitude is distributed inequitably amongst various ethnic, racial, or social groups. Rather, most studies on this issue point to the distractions of poverty and oppression as levers operating against the success of some. I wholeheartedly support reforms that provide every schoolchild with the same opportunity to reach his or her highest potential, but I don’t believe that every one of us was cut out to be a physicist, say, or a fine artist, nor would I hold those individuals up as fundamentally superior to the plumbers and mechanics who keep the systems we rely upon working smoothly.