Universities across the US have announced plans to close their campuses, scale back operations and send as many students as possible home in the wake of increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases in the country. The latest count by the CDC lists the number of confirmed cases at 3,487.
Harvard University, which currently has two confirmed community members with the coronavirus, was among the earliest to announce its campus would be closing, asking all students to move out of residences by 5pm on March 15.
Some students criticised the university’s decision as not giving them enough time to organise moving out, storage, shipping and transport. Those not wishing to return home and unable to stay on campus have had to find alternative accommodation.
“It was very unexpected, but I knew I wasn’t going to be affected by it, just because I wasn’t planning on going back to Italy anyway,” international student Eugene Donati told The Harvard Crimson.
“But now even if I wanted to fly there are just no flights anymore. So if I go, it wouldn’t be possible to come back.”
With airlines operating a reduced number of flights on many routes and many people trying to return to Europe, other students reported having to book flights to neighbouring countries and then find overland routes home.
Harvard is by no means the only university that has decided to close its campus due to COVID-19.
MIT, Princeton and Stanford have all also asked undergraduates to return home. Universities are also trying to offer students financial support for their transport costs.
At Princeton, deputy university spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss told The PIE that it had laid out criteria for students who wish to remain on campus that gave priority to certain categories of students, such as those who need to do lab research.
For international students specifically, it included those who are subject to travel restrictions, come from countries with warning levels 2 and 3 and USDOS levels 3 and 4 for COVID-19 or whose home is in “an area with extremely limited internet connectivity”.
“The university will continue to support each and every one of our students — both international and domestic — who for one reason or another cannot return home and must remain on campus,” he added.
In addition to making travel arrangements, international students are now also waiting for accommodation refunds and are worried about how the transition to online teaching will affect their academic performance.
“We won’t be able to access Google. We won’t be able to access Gmail,” Jacob Chang, vice president of Ohio State University’s International Student Council, told local press regarding trying to study from China.
“Our US phone number won’t work, so there’s a chance we won’t be able to get Duo Mobile [the service used to log into Ohio State accounts].”
Other students have voiced concerns online that having to attend live lectures will mean studying in the early hours of the morning in their time zone, and that censorship that will prevent them from accessing certain topics. However, universities are trying to address these concerns.
“We realise that some of students’ coursework will be significantly hampered by the online teaching format, and the university is helping their instructors accommodate this shift in the best possible way,” explained Hotchkiss at Princeton.
“The office of the dean of the college is studying a variety of strategies that might alleviate the stress for students and faculty, including P/D/F grading options for the whole semester; re-weighting midterm examinations; and other policy adjustments.”
However, while some universities are in a mad rush to shut down as soon as possible, others have taken a different approach.
While UC Berkeley, Arizona State, the University of Utah and others have so far decided to keep campuses open, classes have nevertheless been taken online and events and gatherings have been cancelled.
Over the last few days, several universities have reported new confirmed cases of COVID-19 in their communities.