Coronavirus complicates student travel plans, causes academic adjustments

0
491

Jan. 25, just three days after the spring semester began, students, faculty and staff at the College of William and Mary received an informational health advisory email from Emergency Management Team Chair Sam Jones detailing COVID-19 and its ramifications for campus. In the past several weeks, the College has sent out three additional campus wide updates and instigated several precautionary measures against the virus, prompting students to alter their travel plans to China and other Asian destinations.

Since December 2019, the coronavirus has sparked concern throughout the international community. Originating in Wuhan, a city in China’s central Hubei province, the disease has spread to all Chinese provinces as well as to other countries in Southeast Asia. According to World Health Organization reports released Feb. 12, an estimated 60,000 coronavirus cases are either confirmed or suspected throughout China with an additional 28 countries facing at least one confirmed case.

WHO data indicate that the United States had 13 confirmed cases of the coronavirus by Feb. 12. Of those confirmed cases, 11 patients have travel history of visiting China, potentially illustrating the virus’s journey across the Pacific Ocean from Asia to North America. As of Feb. 18, Virginia does not have any reported and confirmed cases of the coronavirus. However, the College is taking precautionary steps to promote campus health in the weeks preceding spring break, when many students are anticipated to travel home or to alternative destinations.

According to the third update email that Jones sent to community members Feb. 14, the College has banned all university-sponsored undergraduate travel to China and has imposed a mandatory review process for all university-sponsored faculty, staff and graduate student travel.

These decisions accompany the College’s recommendation that students exercise caution if they choose to travel over spring break, especially if it entails visiting countries with confirmed coronavirus cases.

“Spring Break begins March 7,” Jones said in an email. “As you begin to look toward your plans for that period, we encourage you to follow the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization and the State Department if you are planning to travel outside the country.”

Beyond spring break, uncertainty surrounding the outbreak’s severity and duration is impeding summer break plans as well. Some Chinese and international students at the College are unsure of whether traveling to China will disqualify them from reentering the country given the situation’s volatility.

Xiangyi Fang ’21 has struggled to decide her travel plans during the ongoing outbreak. While she is from Guangzhou — a Chinese city hundreds of miles away from Wuhan — Fang is reluctant to travel back to her home in China at the end of the spring semester, partially because of her concern that the United States will impose even more stringent travel restrictions on individuals visiting the country.

“I was planning to go back in May and return by June for summer session, but now I’m worried that I might not be allowed to enter the States by the time I come back,” Fang said in a written statement. “I’ll see how the situation goes and then decide whether to book a flight.”

Other students pursuing study abroad programs in China have similarly had to adjust their plans in response to the virus. Rowan McDowell ’21 intended to spend a full academic year in Chengdu, China as part of his specific program, and while he successfully completed his fall semester a few months ago, he is now unable to go back to China and complete the program’s spring portion because of the College’s official policies regarding student travel to the country.

McDowell is currently biding his time in South Korea as he waits for his program in Chengdu to reopen, but he anticipates that his return to China will be indefinitely delayed. While South Korea has experienced fewer concentrated coronavirus outbreaks in recent weeks, McDowell is still exercising caution to preserve his health during his time in Asia.

“I wear a facemask outdoors now, and pay extra attention to washing hands and sanitation,” McDowell said in a written statement. “It is just a precaution however, what’s really makes a difference is not living in the quarantined province or having any infected family members.”

“I wear a facemask outdoors now, and pay extra attention to washing hands and sanitation,” McDowell said in a written statement. “It is just a precaution however, what’s really makes a difference is not living in the quarantined province or having any infected family members.”

Jenna Iskandar ’21 planned to spend February through May in Harbin, China as part of a third-party study abroad program but had to revise her plans significantly following the outbreak. She first became aware of the coronavirus’s ramifications for her study abroad experience when her third-party program provider contacted her and advised her about longer wait times for visas and administrative approvals related to the virus.

Once WHO and the Centers for Disease Control published reports about the spread of the coronavirus in mid-January, Iskandar received word from the College asking her about her intended plans now that her program had been temporarily discontinued.

“After CDC issued their highest-level warning, that was when William and Mary reached out, the program reached out, and basically all the programs were getting cancelled at that point,” Iskandar said.

“After CDC issued their highest-level warning, that was when William and Mary reached out, the program reached out, and basically all the programs were getting cancelled at that point,” Iskandar said.

Iskandar was offered alternative third-party postings through her study abroad provider in Taiwan and Thailand, but she chose to return to Williamsburg about halfway through the second week of classes. Despite her delayed arrival on campus, Iskandar said she was pleased with how administration and faculty handled her situation, especially when it came to organizing her academic plans without the time she’d planned to spend in China.

“I was actually very satisfied with how quickly everything was handled,” Iskandar said. “… Re-registering for classes was a week late, and I had to do it on the last couple days of add-drop, but professors were good about letting me in. … I really appreciated that.”

Nick Vasquez, the College’s international travel and security manager, indicated that the College is still in the ongoing process of reviewing study abroad and internship opportunities in Asia that occur beyond the spring semester. The College’s several summer program offerings in China and elsewhere in the region are currently under review and will be evaluated again by administration later this month.

“The Freeman Fellowships place students in internship opportunities all over Asia and the Reves Center has asked the Charles Center to relocate their internships out of China this summer,” Vasquez said. “The Reves Center also runs a summer study abroad program in Beijing and they will be evaluating travel in late February.”

Some American news outlets, including The New York Times, have published articles describing increased public scrutiny towards Asian Americans who are perceived as being sick or contagious because of the outbreak’s concentration in Asian countries. When reached for comment about any discrimination against Chinese or international students on campus, a representative from the College’s Chinese Student Organization said that no discriminatory behavior has been reported to their knowledge.

In his Feb. 14 update, Jones urged students to treat all students with kindness and compassion during the outbreak regardless of background and national origin.

“As we each address any concerns we may have about this virus, we should all keep in mind our university values of being a caring, supportive and respectful community and maintain an inclusive, welcoming and caring space for all our members,” Jones said.

“As we each address any concerns we may have about this virus, we should all keep in mind our university values of being a caring, supportive and respectful community and maintain an inclusive, welcoming and caring space for all our members,” Jones said.