Saturday, Feb. 29, Italy and Iran joined China and South Korea on the College of William and Mary’s restricted destinations list due to the elevated Centers for Disease Control Level 3 warning and the U.S. State Department Level 3 Travel Advisory concerning the spread of COVID-19, more popularly known as the coronavirus. The decision thus condemned all university-sponsored travel and subsequently prohibited all undergraduate students from remaining in the countries as a part of study abroad programs.
By the time the College made the decision to remove all students from Italy, some third-party study abroad providers, such as the Syracuse University program in Florence, had already canceled their operations for the remainder of the semester. The College contacted all students in Italy, along with their program providers Feb. 29 with their decision, superseding any pending decision of non-College programs.
In the Feb, 29 email from International Travel and Security Manager Nick Vasquez, students were directed to make their arrangements to return home and to notify the Global Education Office of their secured departure date.
“We determined that we had already set precedent by putting China and South Korea on the W&M restricted destination list, as well as our own assessment of 3rd party providers pulling out of the country, that we should elevate Italy to our restricted destination list,” Vasquez said in an email.
According to Vasquez, Italy was the first country to be placed on the restricted destinations list in which a group of over 20 of the College’s students were studying. Managing the travel and transfer credits of the students while communicating with the many third-party providers presents some challenges, according to Vasquez. The GEO will be working with the students to provide support for potential distance learning options and online courses.
“… We are working with each provider to see how best to accommodate each student,” Vasquez said. “Some providers are offering students the chance to finish the program with online and distance learning. But ultimately GEO will work with each student to support their efforts to receive credit.”
Blair Houska ’21 is among the students who will be traveling home in the coming days. Houska was studying in Florence through an SAI program for the semester. Houska said that her program told her that they would attempt to provide reimbursements for recoverable costs, although tuition would likely not be included since the students will continue to finish their courses.
Both the College and Houska’s program offered contacts in case difficulties arose in securing a return flight. Given the context of the spread of an international virus and the calls of other U.S. universities to suspend abroad programs in Italy, Houska said she was not surprised by the College’s decision to send all students in Italy home.
“I definitely was not surprised about the email, and I think it was inevitable that I would be sent back home,” Houska said.
“I definitely was not surprised about the email, and I think it was inevitable that I would be sent back home,” Houska said in an email. “There were many other schools who requested that their students return home before W&M did (to the point where last week my classes were half-empty), so I knew it was just a matter of time before we did too.”
Gabi Cao ’22 was studying abroad in Siena, Italy through the Siena Italian Studies semester program. Prior to receiving an official decision from the College, Cao said that she anticipated the program would be cancelled in the near future for liability reasons and to uphold a good public image. She said that as disappointing as it would be to have to end her time abroad early, it would be wise for the College to tread cautiously considering the complications that could arise from quarantines.
“As unfortunate as it is, it’s probably better to exercise caution and send students home … because the development of coronavirus is so unpredictable and in the near future travel in and out of Italy could get very difficult and it would be very complicated if the situation were to become even further compromised with transportation restrictions,” Cao said.
“… I think they will end up following the precedent that other programs and universities have set by sending students home, especially after the CDC issued the Level 3 Warning,” Cao said in an email. “Either that, or William & Mary will require that we come home and in that case, we would probably have to adhere to their policy. As unfortunate as it is, it’s probably better to exercise caution and send students home (especially from programs in the North) because the development of coronavirus is so unpredictable and in the near future travel in and out of Italy could get very difficult and it would be very complicated if the situation were to become even further compromised with transportation restrictions.”
Cao’s program began to hold daily meetings for all students and staff about the coronavirus Feb. 25. Cao said that the staff would often reiterate the importance of washing hands regularly and limiting travel to Northern Italy, where a majority of the confirmed cases of coronavirus are located. She explained that the program also recommended that the students gather their information directly from the CDC and World Health Organization to minimize fearmongering and inaccuracies.
“Our staff at Siena Italian Studies tells us that there isn’t much we can do to prevent contracting coronavirus other than to wash our hands with soap and warm water, sneeze into our elbows, avoid touching our faces and mouths as much as possible and limit travel to areas with a higher concentration of cases,” Cao said.
Students studying abroad and traveling throughout Italy have experienced travel complications due to the growing amount of coronavirus cases in the country.
Cao recounted her plans to visit a friend in Rome earlier in February, and how she ultimately decided to cancel her trip as a result of a reported case of coronavirus in Siena. She did not want to be prevented from reentering Siena.
“When I got to the train station, I had five minutes to decide if I should still go or not,” Cao said “I decided to be cautious and not go just in case something unpredictable happened with transportation barriers and I ended up not being able to return to Siena. Our program staff had also previously recommended staying close to Siena so that definitely helped me make my decision. … I was really bummed about not being able to visit my friend in Rome at first, but then it ended up being okay because her program decided the next day to send all students back to the United States so now she’s getting ready to go back.”
Katie Kasperson ’21 is studying abroad for the spring semester in Copenhagen, Denmark. Kasperson was traveling in northern Italy during her spring break while the confirmed cases of coronavirus intensified there. She flew into Milan Feb. 22, and her temperature was taken at the airport upon arrival. In order to reduce her time spent in the north, Kasperson adapted to the news and altered the itinerary of her trip.
“Trains started to get canceled and the fashion show was postponed, so I went to Florence a day earlier than I’d planned,” Kasperson said in an email. “Some people were wearing masks, but everyone seemed relatively calm and not worried about the virus. By Tuesday afternoon, however, deaths had been confirmed in Italy and the northern regions had been quarantined.”
In the wake of the confirmed deaths from the virus, Kasperson recalled the panic she witnessed in Florence. She made the decision to travel back to Denmark before being explicitly advised to do so by her program provider.
“Several study abroad programs in Italy had already been canceled/suspended and people were starting to freak out,” Kasperson said. “When I went to the grocery store, some of the shelves were empty (most of the pasta and bottled water was gone).”
“Several study abroad programs in Italy had already been canceled/suspended and people were starting to freak out,” Kasperson said. “When I went to the grocery store, some of the shelves were empty (most of the pasta and bottled water was gone). I decided to come home on Wednesday instead of waiting until Sunday — to be ahead of the virus and the travel restrictions instead of getting stuck. While this was disappointing, I’m glad I did what I did. My friends in Italy are now leaving the country, either traveling to other places in Europe or going all the way back to the U.S.”
Additionally, students who live in Italy and had planned to travel home during the College’s upcoming spring break have had to change their plans in wake of the elevated travel warnings.
Anna Frare ’21 lives in Treviso, Italy in the northeastern part of the country when not attending school at the College. Frare had planned to travel home for spring break and leave on Feb. 27 in order to be at her sister’s confirmation service. However, she ultimately decided the day before not to risk her health and the travel complications that could arise from attempting to reenter the U.S.
“Last weekend, my dad called me and suggested that I stay in the U.S. instead of traveling to Italy for break,” Frare said in an email. “His motivation was that he didn’t want me to be risking my health and my possibility to come back to the U.S. Knowing things would have gotten worse, it was better to be safe. The final decision was made on Wednesday, the day before I was going to leave. By then, my sister’s confirmation, the main reason why I would have left campus a week before our actual spring break, had been cancelled, together with all other religious or social congregations.”
Frare has no intention of boarding a plane during spring break, but she remains hopeful that the crisis will be under control by the time she is ready to travel home for the summer.
“As I evaluate what to do over spring break instead of going home, I realized that I have no desire to get on a plane,” Frare said. “We don’t know where it is going to hit next and it is best to avoid crowded places with poor ventilation. I will not go home in the midst of the crisis, but I hope that by the time the semester ends the situation will have improved.”
As a result of the CDC Level 3 warning, Frare said she thinks the College reacted appropriately in restricting travel to Italy. The email detailing the College’s restrictions confirmed the decision Frare and her family had already made a week prior. For Frare, the concern of not being able to reenter the United States and finish the semester at the College was the driving force behind her decision to remain in the U.S. for spring break.
“However, as of right now, the risk of not being able to come back to the U.S. to finish my studies is bigger than the problem of paying for health care, which is why I ultimately decided to stay in the U.S,” Frare said.
“I am sorry for those who had plans to go there, but even more for those students studying abroad who are being sent home,” Frare said. “The reason why that makes sense is that students abroad might not benefit from the same health care that they would receive at home because of different insurance policies. Paradoxically, if I get the virus here, recovering from it and getting the necessary medical attention will likely be more expensive than if I had gone home and gotten it there. However, as of right now, the risk of not being able to come back to the U.S. to finish my studies is bigger than the problem of paying for health care, which is why I ultimately decided to stay in the U.S.”
The CDC has since published a “Guidance for Student Foreign Travel for Institutions of Higher Education” stating that universities should consider postponing or canceling all student foreign exchange or abroad programs. Vasquez said that the College’s International Travel Review Committee (ITRC) plans to continue to evaluate each country’s virus outbreak individually, as they view the guidance as too extreme.
“We are looking at all options, but we prefer to respond to each country outbreak on a step-by-step basis, utilizing our existing W&M policies governing such issues,” Vazquez said. “…While we think the guidance goes too far, we will take in all sources of information and ultimately the ITRC will make a decision based on our existing policies in place.”