In the wake of rising global concern over COVID-19, a newly-discovered strain of coronavirus, Oberlin students are finding their study away programs altered or abruptly terminated in countries facing travel advisories. Although the College has issued statements indicating its ongoing support for affected students, the situation has raised questions about how program cancelations will impact the remainder of these students’ academic careers.
“As of March 4, six of those programs have made the decision to suspend the in-country portion of their semesters, impacting 12 Oberlin students,” Director of International Programs and Study Away Mike Rainaldi wrote in an email to the Review. “Those decisions to cancel were not made by Oberlin, but by our partner organizations on the ground in China, South Korea, Italy, and France.”
These decisions follow the sweeping shutdown of schools and universities around the world in response to the outbreak. All schools in Italy are currently under lockdown until at least March 15, joining other school closures across Asia and Europe.
In late Feb, the State Department upgraded Italy, South Korea, and Mongolia to Travel Advisory Level 3: Reconsider Travel. China, where the outbreak originated, is currently listed under Level 4: Do Not Travel.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Sunday that colleges and universities “should consider asking current program participants to return to their home country.” The University of California and State University of New York systems, among other higher educational institutions around the county, have since heeded the CDC’s recommendation, either suspending or canceling their study abroad programs.
College third-year Marie Romanelli’s Florence-based program, hosted by the CAPA Global Education Network, canceled all in-person classes last Saturday. The decision has left Romanelli unsure of how the rest of the semester will proceed.
“Everything is very unclear,” Romanelli wrote in an email to the Review. “We’re switching to online courses, but no students or staff are prepared to handle getting credit with this new format and less interaction with the city. My program is very centered on the history of the city and class tours were a big part of the education process.”
College third-year Eleanor Cunningham, who was studying abroad with the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome, returned to the U.S. on Monday following the cancellation of in-person classes. According to Cunningham, her program is compensating for the cost of travel.
Staff from the Office of Study Away plan to work closely with the 12 students whose programs have changed as a result of the outbreak. These students represent only a small subset of all students studying abroad — 178 students are currently participating in 81 study abroad programs, according to Rainaldi.
“Our office is working with senior staff at the College to prioritize the wellbeing, agency, and academic progress of our study abroad students,” Rainaldi wrote. “We are in communication with our study abroad partner organizations around the world, are monitoring the guidance and advice of various global health and safety and security organizations, and are providing individualized support to our students abroad, along with their partners, guardians, and loved ones.”
The Office of the Registrar is working to ensure that individuals will still be able to gain credits for the semester.
“Where possible, we hope that the program might find ways to complete work long-distance,” Liz Clerkin, registrar and associate dean for academic advising, wrote in an email to the Review. “However, we have to acknowledge that there is a possibility that we might not be able to transfer all study away work for every student. We are seeking to identify alternatives so that students are able to graduate on time; we are discussing Oberlin course alternatives such as adding a second module course that is already being offered or private readings to continue the work a student started in their study away program.”
Clerkin stressed that these matters will have to be handled on a case-by-case basis.
“Each student’s situation will be slightly different, but we are prepared to find the best options for each student,” she wrote. “That may be completing study abroad work from home when possible or returning to campus to take second module courses. We are also exploring possible summer options.”
However, per CDC guidelines, Student Health is unable to accommodate most students who are returning from Level 3 and Level 4 countries. According to Director of Student Health John Harshbarger, the CDC recommends that these students contact a medical professional by phone, self-isolate for 14 days upon return, and self-monitor their symptoms daily.
“Students returning from Level 3 countries will be advised to go directly to their permanent home,” Harshbarger wrote in an email to the Review. “Student Health will not be in a position to provide support for many students returning from Level 3 countries because they will not be residing in Oberlin upon return. If the student’s permanent home is in Oberlin, we will be coordinating with Lorain County Public Health Department to provide care and to monitor students’ symptoms while they remain in self-isolation.”
Although no cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Ohio, three residents are currently being tested for the virus at time of publication. Seven others were investigated but test results returned negative. Regional health representatives as well as College officials are taking steps to minimize possible exposure to the virus, including publishing up-to-date information and preparing for a possible outbreak.
In a Tuesday email, the Office of Communications updated the campus community on the College’s current strategy regarding COVID-19. In addition to providing information about study away, the email outlined preventative actions such as supplying hand sanitizer in residential halls and sanitizing buses used by College athletes.
For Oberlin students who are unexpectedly being sent home, the situation has proved disappointing and difficult.
“At this point, I know I’m on a flight and it lands in the U.S.,” Cunningham wrote. “It has been such an ordeal and I feel like this experience was once in a lifetime and it was gone in a matter of days. It’s hard to wrap my brain around it.”
Information and updates concerning COVID-19 can be found on cdc.gov.