Novel Coronavirus outbreak sends AU students abroad back home
Students from China, South Korea, and Italy have been asked to leave
This article was updated on March 6 with new information since its first publication on Feb. 4. This story will be updated as more information becomes available.
In an email sent to the student body Thursday evening, the Office of Campus Life announced that the University has suspended all “university-sponsored international travel until further notice” as the coronavirus threat grows more serious around the world. The restrictions apply to Alternative Break programs outside of the United States and any international University-sponsored travel in the future, by faculty or students.
The first trips to be cancelled were the Alternative Break programs to California and Israel/Palestine. After the State of Emergency was declared in California around noon on Thursday, the University decided it would be the best precaution to cancel the trip, Dan Nichols, the assistant vice president for risk, safety, and transportation programs, told the Eagle. The decision to cancel the trip to Israel/Palestine was due to Israel’s aggressive closing of their borders to prevent spread of disease.
AU is not requiring that students who are currently abroad return home unless the Center for Disease Control upgrades their countries’ warning to Level 3. The only countries AU students have been required to return from are China, South Korea, and Italy.
Emails to students participating in the European Public Affairs and Advocacy Institute in Brussels from Saul Newman, associate dean for undergraduate education in the School of Public Affairs, said that AU would reimburse them for “university-sponsored travel.” However, he said that students who chose to continue with their trip would lose any University support.
“AU had to make the call, and I know it really comes from a risk-management perspective,” said Kevin Norton, a junior in SPA, who had been slated to travel to Brussels as part of the Institute. “Of course I’m upset and disappointed, but what can I do? Who can I blame? No one in particular… It’s obviously out of their control.”
Students that are already in Brussels are required to return immediately, departing no later than March 8.
“Individuals who choose to proceed with plans to otherwise travel internationally in spite of this moratorium and warning, shall do so at their own risk and expense,” Newman wrote. “This means that they will not be covered by AU travel insurance and will no longer be eligible for evacuation assistance through the University. In addition, the University cannot reimburse you for any expenses that you may have incurred related to the program, including but not limited to flight change fees and other costs.”
Newman said that there are many uncertainties regarding COVID-19, especially surrounding border closures, flight complications, and restrictions and quarantines in other countries.
“We know this is inconvenient and disappointing, but your health, safety, and ability to travel without restrictions is critically important,” Newman wrote. “The ongoing uncertainty of the COVID-19 situation in many parts of the world requires appropriate steps to safeguard our students, faculty, and staff. We are also recommending that members of the AU community reconsider personal international travel plans.”
The domestic Alternative Break Programs are still running as of Thursday evening, according to an email from Stephen W. Angelsmith, the assistant director of Global Learning and Leadership, which was sent out to participants of the Puerto Rico alternative break.
“As of today, this immediate change to university travel policy that will not affect our upcoming Alternative Break to Puerto Rico,” Angelsmith said.
The updated travel policy includes international travel, meaning that Alternative Break trips headed to Puerto Rico, California, and North Carolina will continue as scheduled.
“I understand that the University wants us to be safe but I just wish this email came a couple days ago,” said Vanessa Sousa, a freshman in SPA, who is part of the Alternative Break trip to Puerto Rico. “Some people are supposed to leave tomorrow and this cancellation is very last minute.... We all pay into a payment plan and a lot of students receive scholarships so we really can’t afford to lose this money if the trip is cancelled.”
Update from March 4
All students studying abroad in Italy were recalled by the University to finish their term online in the United States, according to an email sent to the AU community on Monday. This comes after the Center for Disease Control implemented a Level 3 travel warning in the country. The University has already suspended programs in China and South Korea.
The University is encouraging students leaving Italy to go back to their homes and finish their course load remotely. There will be on-campus housing provided to the students who cannot. Students returning from China and South Korea were housed on campus by AU upon their return.
The email stated that the students would be screened upon arrival at the airport, but are not being asked to self-quarantine. However, Tess Herdman, a senior in the School of International Service studying abroad in Rome, said that she was only asked whether she had traveled recently to China as she went through security in Italy.
Upon arriving in the U.S. Sunday night, she wasn’t required to go through any screenings. She was not asked about travel history or illness, either.
“Everyone was really scared that we were going to get trapped, either in Italy or in some sort of quarantine between countries,” Herdman said. “When we arrived at the U.S. airport we didn't go through a single health screening of any kind. Honestly, a little concerning and not what I've been hearing from the news or any source. They're saying ‘Oh they're, you know, keeping an eye on passengers from countries,’ but they're absolutely not.”
Herdman was in Paris Friday night when she got the alert from the U.S. Embassy that Italy’s rating from the CDC had been updated to Level 3. Her first thought was, “We have to get out as quickly as possible.”
After AU informed students that they would have to leave by March 6, she canceled her original flight out of Paris and booked one back to Italy as soon as she could, concerned that France might start closing their borders. She was scanned for fever going through security in Paris on her way back to Rome. After she landed, she rushed to buy tickets back to the U.S., move out of her apartment, throw out food and spend her euros.
At first, the University told Herdman to work with AxA, the travel insurance students abroad are required to purchase, to book tickets back to the U.S. Students were told they would be sent back to wherever their permanent address was. However, on Saturday night, AU alerted students that the provider was overwhelmed with requests and they should buy their own tickets to expedite the process.
Students will be reimbursed for flight costs up to $1,500, the University said, but Herdman said many flights were even more expensive, and she isn’t sure when reimbursement will happen. She said that AU has asked John Cabot University, where many AU students were taking classes, to refund part of the cost of housing, but that too remains up in the air.
AU and John Cabot University informed students that they may continue their classes remotely, but that the process of organizing the schedule will take at least until mid-March. During that period, Herdman said she and other students will be living at home.
“It was a very confusing process,” Herdman said. “I really don't think that that's necessarily [AU’s] fault, I think it's just confusing overall because it involves so many people, so many moving parts and so many governments. There's still things that I need to know about — I need to know how my classes are going to work out, I need to know how I'm going to be reimbursed for my flight, I need to know if I'm getting any money back for my housing.”
The University is asking students to take precautions during spring break, although AU does not plan on suspending any Alternative Break programs. A “cross-functional response team” is managing the pandemic protocol for campus.
In one of the emails sent to students in Italy, AU said it was also monitoring the situation in Japan, although so far, students have not been recalled from the country.
Update from Feb. 27:
The University announced in an email Wednesday morning that it is mandating that students studying abroad in South Korea return to the U.S. in the wake of a Center for Disease Control report that the coronavirus has gotten significantly more dangerous in the country. AU also stated that all university-sponsored travel to South Korea has been suspended.
In an email to The Eagle, Stacie Burgess, the director of Public Affairs, said that less than 10 students are currently in South Korea, about 30 are in Japan, and 47 are in Italy.
The email to the AU community said that, “the Provost’s Office, the Office of Campus Life, the Office of Risk Management, AU Abroad and the individual schools and colleges of the affected students are working to support their return.”
The email also said that Yonsei University, AU’s partner institution for study abroad in South Korea, has delayed the start date of its semester to March 16 and cancelled its international student orientation. This schedule change will allow them to work with students before their programs start “so they can return to American University to continue their studies through other avenues,” according to the statement.
Although the University is not recalling students from Japan and Italy, which are other areas of concern, according to the CDC, AU said that it has informed students studying in those areas of the updated information.
The email stated that the International Student and Scholar Services are reaching out to students from affected countries to “provide support.”
According to an updated statement from the University on Feb. 26, students returning from China were asked to stay in a mandated 14-day quarantine for proper screening and medical attention. Additionally, they received a proactive screening at the airport upon arrival.
The Office of Campus Life announced on Jan. 28 that students studying abroad in China must return home due to the coronavirus outbreak, which was declared as a public health emergency by the World Health Organization on Jan. 30.
The University offers multiple undergraduate and graduate abroad programs in both the fall and spring at different universities throughout China. There were nine students studying in Beijing for the spring semester. One student, Olivia Emery, an SIS junior who was studying at Peking University in Beijing, said she was not able to attend classes because of the outbreak.
“As of right now, I’ve been stuck in my off-campus apartment and the surrounding area for three days,” Emery said in a phone interview with the Eagle. “Friday, the last time I went to campus, my temperature was taken to allow me access onto campus.”
The virus, which killed over 425 people in China, first presented itself on Dec. 31, 2019. As of Jan. 27, the U.S. State Department and Center for Disease Control declared a Level 3 travel advisory that recommends against all non-essential travel to China.
There are currently 14 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S., with two in Chicago, six in California and one each in Arizona, Washington state, and Massachusetts. As of Feb. 1, the virus has also been confirmed in Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam with over 25,000 confirmed infections in China.
Students who traveled outside Beijing for the Lunar New Year break were asked to take a two week self quarantine before they would be allowed back on campus. Emery said she was no longer allowed to attend her internship and was told she would have to take her classes online at Peking University when school was back in session.
Emery also stated that four of her classmates had already gone back to the U.S. and a few more were leaving later in the week amidst the fear of catching the virus. When asked if she would follow suit, Emery said she was hoping to stay.
“I’m an SIS major, and AU offers very limited regional courses for East Asia so I’m afraid I won’t graduate on time without studying abroad,” she said.
Emery was then updated in an email from the Office of Campus Life saying that AU had made the decision to bring all students abroad in China back home effective immediately. In an email addressed to the whole student body from the OCL they announced their decision and added, “The Office of Campus Life and AU Abroad have been working with the students to support their return and make academic arrangements for the remainder of the semester.”
AU spokesperson Kelly Alexander told the Eagle in an email that arrangements have been made for all nine students to depart, and they will be finishing their spring semester on campus starting on Monday. There are currently no confirmed cases of coronavirus in the DMV area.
Fariha Rahman and Dan Papscun contributed to the reporting of this story.