Due to advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) related to the global coronavirus outbreak, some students studying abroad witnessed their University-run programs cancelled, requiring them to return to the United States much earlier than expected. Other programs, such as the Spring 2020 Semester at Sea, altered their itineraries or contended with unexpected cancellations.
In an email to the student body dated February 26, Dean of Students Allen Groves warned that the University would cancel any study abroad programs “at any location for which the CDC sets a warning level 3.” As of March 2, the CDC identified four level-3 nations — China, Iran, South Korea, and Italy. In addition, the University restricted student travel for University-related purposes to Japan. While Japan is not yet considered a level-3 nation by the CDC, the Japanese government recently announced the closure of all schools nationwide until at least early April.
The CDC’s recent designation of Italy, an immensely-popular study abroad destination for American college students, as a Level 3 Travel Health Notice resulted in the cancellation of “UVA in Italy: Siena” and “UVA in Italy: Florence at the Palazzo Rucellai” for the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester. The Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese previously advised students considering studying abroad in Italy to select those UVA-recommended programs, as they “have been carefully researched by UVA faculty” and “have an established institutional affiliation.”
In his message to the University community, Groves provided information and advice to those concerned about the coronavirus outbreak.
“The virus has spread to areas of the world beyond China with an accelerating and unpredictable trajectory,” Groves wrote. “This threat will likely grow. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced this week that the virus is expected to impact the United States in a more severe way than it has to date. Traveling abroad – whether for study or leisure – carries a number of potential risks. Even a country not currently experiencing an outbreak could suddenly be declared a high-risk area, resulting in heightened exposure to the virus, difficulty with departure, immigration barriers in returning to the U.S., and even possible restrictions on returning to Grounds.”
Third-year College student Mary Katherine Guthrie is currently participating in a Semester at Sea (SAS) program that initially planned to escort students to 11 countries and four continents over the course of four months. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, Guthrie explained to WUVA News that planned stops in China, Malaysia, and India were abandoned in favor of extended stays in the island nation of Mauritius and South Africa. A “Plan-B” trip to the Seychelles was also prevented after the SAS ship was denied entry to the port.
“Moving forward, we have two possible paths,” Guthrie said, describing possible itineraries in which the ship could extend its stay in Mauritius or continue on to an unplanned stop in Mozambique. “SAS routinely stops in Mauritius but has never been to Mozambique before, so the program is trying to secure a berth for us in Mauritius later this week.”
Guthrie described students’ anxieties regarding the potential for further disruptions to their plans, acknowledging that “tensions are high on the ship.”
“We have literally no idea what will happen,” Guthrie continued. “Rumors abound that South Africa will be the end of the program or Ghana will be cancelled or we’ll skip Europe completely and disembark in Florida. The future is so unknown and we are so grateful for any and all news updates we get from the outside.”
While the coronavirus derailed some students’ study abroad agendas, many other programs continue uninterrupted. IES Abroad, a non-profit study abroad organization popular with UVA students, provided a statement to its participants on February 27 in which IES Dean of Students Matt Rader reassured students and families that “the likelihood of contracting the virus is extremely low,” and the provider is “currently running all our Spring 2020 programs, with the exception of Shanghai.”
Rader described the organization’s current response to the outbreak, while also acknowledging the “very fluid and quickly evolving” nature of the situation.
“Here at our IES Abroad headquarters in Chicago, our Crisis Management Team (CMT) is proactively responding and has been very closely monitoring the situation for more than a month,” Rader wrote. “IES Abroad has extensive crisis management plans and protocols in place, which are overseen and implemented by a team with decades of crisis experience. We also have a medical consultant advising us. Our on-site staff members also remain in close contact with local governmental authorities, as well as with local U.S. Embassies and Consulates.”
In addition to study abroad organizations, such as IES, providing guidelines for how students might proceed, the University’s Emergency Management office has included their answers to several frequently-asked questions related to coronavirus on their webpage. With the virus now spreading quickly within the United States, students participating in academic programs abroad may not be the only ones facing unexpected consequences of the outbreak in the coming weeks.
Disclaimer: The author is a third-year undergraduate student currently participating in an IES Abroad program in Madrid, Spain.