Universities respond to COVID-19 fears, foreign exchange programs

Colleges and universities across the country are scrambling to address the public health concerns associated with the coronavirus epidemic. Some campuses are shutting down temporarily and some are making available online classes. The CDC has even sent out guidance on student foreign travel and student exchange programs.

We are fast approaching Spring Break time. Lots of discussions are being held about the safety of students traveling to popular spots and even to places like Mexico. Should students cancel plans and just stay home? That probably depends where the travel destination is and if any large events are scheduled. Caution against large crowds is the biggest concern, especially in areas dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks.

In my own city, Rice University announced Sunday evening that classes are canceled for the entire week of March 9. The university’s Crisis Management Team concluded that “Out of an abundance of caution and to allow faculty and staff time to prepare for possible remote instruction this semester, in-person classroom instruction and undergrad teaching labs for the week of March 9 are canceled. During the week of March 9-13, faculty can provide material that can be completed remotely and does not require group interaction.” In other words, students will have to work independently during the week if they can to complete assignments. While it was a little surprising that the entire campus is shutting down, a larger response was probably expected by the students and staff. RIce University has managed its own case of an employee’s exposure to COVID-19 upon return from traveling overseas.

Like Rice University, other schools are putting together their contingency plans in order to avoid widespread illness on campus. The CDC is particularly concerned about foreign exchange programs for students. The CDC is asking schools to “consider” postponing or canceling student foreign exchange programs.

Given the global outbreak of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) institutes of higher education (IHE) should consider postponing or canceling upcoming student foreign exchange programs. IHE should consider asking current program participants to return to their home country. Those overseeing student foreign exchange programs should be aware that students may face unpredictable circumstances, travel restrictions, challenges in returning home or accessing health care while abroad.

IHEs should consider asking students participating in study abroad programs to return to the United States. IHEs should work with state and local public health officials to determine the best approach for when and how (e.g., chartered transportation for countries or areas assessed as high-risk for exposure) their study abroad students might return. All plans for returning study abroad students should be designed to protect participants from stigma and discrimination.

Of the almost 19 million college students in the United States, about 1 million students come from overseas. Of that 1 million students, about 370,000 come from China. Other countries with a large number of students participating in foreign exchange programs are South Korea, Japan, and Iran. The flip side of this is that about 342,000 students from the U.S. study abroad each year, with Italy being the second most popular destination.

Both abroad and in the United States, schools are making classes available online. China is making classes online available on mobile phones because some students may be stuck at home without laptop computers. One NYU history professor said that because firewall issues can be difficult in China, she uses the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat to communicate with students during her online lectures.

American universities with campus operations in China and Japan, including Temple University, NYU, Fort Hays State University, and Sam Houston State University, had just a few weeks to respond to cities placed under quarantine. Colleges and universities in the U.S. are now asking professors to do the same. Specifically, professors are being asked to familiarize themselves with video conferencing programs like Zoom in case their campuses go under quarantine.

Travel is canceled for many schools now.

Even before the CDC’s advisory about study abroad, many colleges and state university systems began canceling both ongoing and upcoming travel programs. Among them: the University of California system, Arizona State University, University of Pittsburgh, Edinboro University, James Madison University, University of Connecticut, Trinity College and Texas A&M University. Those cancellations have meant scrambling to find new spots for students on crowded campuses.

Lehman at NYU says that after the school’s Chinese New Year break, with coronavirus looming, hundreds of Shanghai students chose to go study on different campuses: “The No. 1 destination, ironically, was Florence. And so actually, a number of those students have had a double bump experience. But they’re troupers.”

Washington State University has been particularly hard hit.

“As a way to increase precautionary health measures, such as social distancing, and ensure the successful conclusion of the quarter for UW students, as of March 9, 2020, classes and finals on all three campuses (Bothell, Seattle and Tacoma) will not be held in person for the remainder of winter quarter, which ends March 20. Our campuses will remain open to serve all those who rely on our services, including hospitals and clinics, dining services, residence halls, library services, and recreation and athletics facilities. Husky athletics events will proceed as scheduled. We plan to resume normal class operations when spring quarter begins March 30, pending public health guidance.”

COVID-19 is disrupting all aspects of normal life around the world. Universities and colleges are looking to the CDC for guidance on moving forward, trying to complete the semester and keep student life as normal as possible.