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Villa Rossa, site of Syracuse University's Florence campus

Wikimedia Commons/Sailko

American university programs in Italy -- the second-most-popular destination for study abroad programs -- are variously suspending operations and evacuating students, moving classes online, or warning students not to travel domestically as the global spread of the new coronavirus begins to affect international programs in countries outside China, where the virus first originated.

South Korea and Italy have the highest numbers of confirmed cases of COVID-19, as the virus is officially called, outside China, and the rapid spread of the virus in northern Italy in recent days has prompted public health officials to put some cities and towns in the country’s north on lockdown, effectively quarantining an estimated 100,000 people, according to CNN. Authorities in the regions of Lombardy, which includes Milan, and Veneto, which includes Venice, have ordered universities to close through March 2, Bloomberg reported.

Almost 37,000 American students studied abroad in Italy in 2017-18, according to the Institute of International Education’s annual Open Doors survey, and the spread of the virus now threatens to dampen or even derail the experiences of perhaps thousands of students currently studying abroad there.

Among universities that have announced changes to their Italy programs, Syracuse University said Tuesday it was closing its academic program at its Florence campus and would assist students with returning to the United States.

"Concerns for the safety, well-being and free movement of the 342 students in our study abroad program in Florence, Italy, have guided this difficult decision, which was also informed by global health experts," Steven Bennett, Syracuse's senior vice president for international programs and academic operations, said in a statement. "We believe this is absolutely necessary to reduce the risk of our students being unable to leave Italy due to Italian containment efforts."

New York University also cited the potential for travel restrictions in announcing Monday that it was suspending operations at its Florence campus and would begin holding classes remotely through at least March 29. NYU already moved classes at its Shanghai campus online in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

"The occurrence of coronavirus cases has climbed steeply in northern Italy," said John Beckman, a NYU spokesman. "In response, the Italian government has been taking swift action to try to prevent its spread. While we do not believe there is a pressing health threat to the NYU Florence community, the past month has taught us that countries may swiftly and unexpectedly make decisions that can significantly affect one’s ability to travel."

Florida International University said Tuesday that it had canceled all study abroad programs in Italy, Japan, Singapore and South Kore​a due to the spread of the coronavirus and that it was requiring all students and employees in those countries on university travel to return immediately. After China, South Korea and Italy, Singapore and Japan have the fourth- and fifth-largest numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide.​

"Out of an abundance of caution and our responsibility for duty of care, we primarily want to protect our students’ and employees’ well-being," said Kenneth G. Furton, FIU's provost and executive vice president. "At the same time, with the risk of the virus outbreak still not being fully understood, we want to be proactive in calling our students and employees home. The goal is to avoid running the risk of having members of the community remain abroad if further travel restrictions are put in place."

Fairfield University, in Connecticut, is closing a study abroad program in Florence and requiring all enrolled students to leave Italy, a decision that affects 142 students, WTNH, an ABC News affiliate, reported.

Other colleges have kept their programs in Italy open but have taken steps such as restricting student travel. Middlebury College, which has programs in three different Italian cities -- Ferrara, Florence and Rome -- has moved one student from the Ferrara location, in northern Italy, farther south to Rome.

"We are now banning all travel to the affected regions, and we are recommending that students also refrain from traveling anywhere else in Italy," said Carlos J. Vélez-Blasini, the dean of international programs at Middlebury. "We have no recommendation about travel elsewhere in Europe. Students will be told, however, that if they come in contact with anyone suspected of having the COVID-19 they would have be in isolation for 14 days, which could well compromise their ability to complete their academic program."

Brown University has not suspended or canceled its program in Bologna, but a university spokesman said program leaders have taken a number of steps, including temporarily suspending all group cultural activities and program excursions and strongly encouraging students to avoid independent travel to the most directly affected regions.

The American University of Rome said in a statement on its website that it remains open as normal, but it is similarly "looking at the safety/necessity of all student trips, public lectures/meetings, and community travel and will postpone or cancel any that are deemed unnecessary or high risk until further notice."​ AUR also said it is increasing levels of cleaning staff to sanitize AUR spaces; providing hand sanitizer throughout the university; requiring students, faculty and staff with cold or flu symptoms to notify either human resources or the university doctor and stay home if so advised; and extending the university doctor’s hours.

Karen Lancaster, a spokeswoman for Johns Hopkins University, also said the university’s campus in Bologna remains open at this time.

"The leadership team, in consultation with public health authorities and Johns Hopkins’ own experts, continually monitors the situation," she said. "We continue to provide information and resources to our community of scholars, faculty and staff in Italy."

At this point, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend reconsidering travel to Italy, except in the case of older people or people with chronic medical conditions, though it does recommend enhanced precautions.

The CDC has warned against nonessential travel to China since late January, prompting many universities to cancel all university-sponsored and study abroad travel there. Just on Monday the CDC upgraded its travel advisory for South Korea to likewise warn against all travel to that country, citing limited access to adequate medical care in affected areas.

Several American universities have campuses in Incheon, a suburb of Seoul. One of those universities, George Mason University, in Virginia, announced Tuesday that it would postpone the start of face-to-face classes at its Incheon campus for two weeks, until March 9.

The University of Utah, which also has a campus in Incheon, has moved all classes online and will reassess whether to continue online teaching in early March, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.

The State University of New York said in a statement that its spring semester at the Incheon campus would start March 2, but the first two weeks of lectures will be taught online. Placement exams and registration for incoming freshmen are taking place as planned this week, but exam and registration sites are restricted to 10 people per room and students must wear masks and have their temperature taken before entering the room. The university is mandating masks be worn in all SUNY Korea facilities and is advising members of the campus community to wash hands frequently and abstain from going to public places or meeting in large groups.

Even as American universities try to navigate the threat posed by coronavirus in relation to their international operations, they increasingly face the threat of an outbreak in the U.S. Top American health authorities warned Tuesday that Americans should prepare for the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S., that it was no longer a question of if but when.

Julie Anne Friend, the director of Northwestern University's Office of Global Safety and Security, emphasized how quickly the situation surrounding COVID-19 is evolving and the complexities and scale of the problem.

Friend said the last time universities dealt with these sorts of circumstances, as in the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS; the H1N1 flu; or even Ebola, universities weren't dealing with the same kind and volume of travel or some of the same complexities in terms of the number of different health authorities involved.

"I think it’s such an unnerving circumstance to think that an individual could be quarantined that people are acting more prudently than maybe they would have in the past," she said.

Friend stressed the importance of college officials planning for various scenarios, of asking, "What happens if X happens -- really thinking outside of the box."

"I don’t know if this is a new normal. I hope that at some point this whole thing slows down," she said. "But I do think that preparing for things like this is the new normal."

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