Coronavirus and Higher Education

Roundup of news about how higher education is coping with initial U.S. impacts of the coronavirus outbreak, and how colleges are preparing for a dizzying array of likely disruptions.

March 6, 2020
 

This week U.S. colleges grappled with the initial impacts of the novel coronavirus outbreak in this country, even as they continued to deal with complications over international travel and to prepare for a dizzying array of likely disruptions in coming weeks and months.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sunday issued guidance recommending that colleges “consider” postponing or canceling student foreign exchange programs and asking students to return to the U.S.

Many institutions have canceled spring break trips and study abroad programs in China, Italy, South Korea and other countries where large numbers of people have COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. That trend accelerated throughout the week. New York University, for example, canceled all nonessential international university travel.

However, the vague wording in the CDC statement confused many in higher education. Some college leaders, for example, wondered if the guidance applied to foreign exchange students hosted by U.S. institutions as well as Americans studying abroad.

Some clarity came Tuesday when the president of NAFSA: Association of International Educators issued a statement saying the group had confirmed with the CDC that the guidance was not intended to apply to international students studying in the U.S.

Meanwhile, 76 percent of U.S. colleges said last month that recruitment of students from China has been affected by the coronavirus, according to the results of a survey the Institute of International Education conducted in February. Among responding institutions, 70 percent said they were evacuating students from China. And 94 percent said study abroad programs in China had been canceled or postponed.

Domestic Travel and Conference Cancellations

More than 210 U.S. cases of the virus had been confirmed by Thursday afternoon, with 12 deaths. Most of the cases were on the West Coast, and almost all the deaths have been in the Seattle area. So far California, Washington and Florida have declared states of emergency due to concerns over the coronavirus.

Some college officials have begun preparing for limitations on domestic travel.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was among the first to restrict university-affiliated travel for students, faculty and staff members to locations in the U.S. where a state of emergency has been declared related to the coronavirus. The university also strongly discouraged personal travel to these areas.

“Given the rapidly changing nature of the virus, if you choose to travel to these affected areas you may be asked to undergo a 14-day self-quarantine off-campus upon return,” the university said in a statement.

Brandman University on Thursday announced that faculty and staff members were "generally prohibited" from traveling by air to conduct university business -- both domestically or internationally -- through the end of April. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology this week suspended international travel on MIT business for all students and employees. The institute asked all community members to log any travel outside of the state in a travel registry.

MIT also this week said any in-person MIT event with more than 150 likely attendees between now and May 15 must be canceled, postponed or converted to a virtual gathering.

Many higher education-related organizations faced uncertainty about conferences they were scheduled to host in coming weeks and months. Some have made the call to cancel or take precautions for those who might attend.

The American Physical Society on Saturday announced that it would cancel its annual meeting, which had 10,000 expected attendees and was slated to begin Monday in Denver. Some attendees had traveled long distances to get to Denver, sparking criticism on social media about the late cancellation notice.

On Sunday, Educause canceled its meeting on advanced learning technology that had been scheduled to begin Monday in Bellevue, Wash. And Ellucian, a higher education software firm, on Tuesday canceled its Ellucian Live 2020 event in Orlando, Fla., instead offering a free online version to 2,700 expected attendees.

Organizers of the ASU GSV Summit, which is scheduled to begin in San Diego at the end of March, announced this week that the conference would conduct mandatory temperature screenings for all attendees. The summit also will not admit attendees from China, South Korea, Iran or Italy and will “strongly encourage” a no-handshake policy -- a move likely to spread across higher education.

More Guidance From Feds, ACHA

Traditional-age college students face relatively low risks of dying from COVID-19, which is considered most dangerous for people over 60.

Yet college campuses could play an outsize role in helping to spread the coronavirus, given their dense concentrations of people, heavily used public spaces and large numbers of frequent travelers. Colleges also employ older faculty and staff members, and officials were scrambling this week to minimize health risks posed even to younger students.

The CDC and the American College Health Association both released guidance this week about how college campuses should prepare.

The guidelines from the CDC included how to update emergency operations plans, share information with employees and students, make decisions about canceling classes or events, and preserve safe housing and meals.

The ACHA focused on preparations for student health centers, including how to triage and isolate possibly infected patients. The group's guidance also covered protective equipment for health-care workers, procedures for cleaning and disinfection, and how to prepare for a surge in demand for student health center services.

Several college students already have been exposed to the coronavirus while working in clinical settings and are in quarantine.

A group of students from Lake Washington Institute of Technology in Washington State has been self-quarantined at home after possible exposure. Some are nursing students who, along with four professors from the institute, visited a long-term nursing facility where seven residents have died from COVID-19. Lake Washington closed on Wednesday after a faculty member tested positive for the virus, and will remain shuttered through the weekend.

After a student at Yeshiva University tested positive for the virus, the university on Wednesday shut down its Washington Heights and Midtown campuses in New York City until next week. And Washington State's Everett Community College closed for "deep cleaning" through the weekend after a student was diagnosed with the virus.

Likewise, public health officials directed four students at California’s Los Rios Community College District to self-quarantine after they performed medical duties and came in contact with a patient who later tested positive for the virus.

The U.S. Department of Education also issued new guidance Thursday with a focus on financial aid policies for students who experience disruptions due to the coronavirus.

The department, which last week said it was forming a coronavirus task force and launched a site Friday for college and school officials, explained how to comply with financial aid regulations a well as adding new temporary flexibility, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators said in a written statement.

Some of the department’s guidance dealt with possible disruptions to the Federal Work-Study program. It also seeks to help colleges more quickly offer online education options to cope with disruptions to courses and academic programs.

“While some institutions would normally have to go through an approval process with the Education Department to use or expand distance learning programs, the Education Department is providing ‘broad approval’ to accommodate students ‘on a temporary basis’ without going through that process,” NASFAA said. “It is also allowing accrediting agencies to waive their review requirements for offering distance education for institutions that may need to do so to accommodate students impacted by the spread of the coronavirus.”

Both the department and the CDC also this week addressed stigma and discrimination related to the coronavirus.

The department cited news reports about stereotyping, harassment and bullying of people who are perceived to be Chinese American or of Asian descent, including some students.

“Ethnic harassment or bullying exacerbates hatred, harms students and is never justified,” Kenneth L. Marcus, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a written statement. “These incidents can create a climate of misunderstanding and fear. This hurts all of us.”

March Madness Without Fans?

The National Collegiate Athletic Association this week announced that it had convened a panel of health experts to help while the NCAA considered “all circumstances” in contingency planning for the virus.

Those scenarios include possibly holding its March basketball tournaments without spectators, Donald Remy, the NCAA’s chief operating officer, told Bloomberg. The men’s tournament brings in more than 80 percent of the NCAA’s total revenue of more than $1 billion, mostly through TV deals.

The National College Players Association said in a statement that the NCAA and colleges should act quickly to help protect athletes. “There should be a serious discussion about holding competitions without an audience present,” the group said. “The NCAA and its colleges must act now, there is no time to waste.”

Several colleges and universities have begun limiting the travel of intercollegiate sports teams. Chicago State University and the University of Missouri at Kansas City canceled men’s basketball games that had been scheduled this week at Seattle University. Chicago State also canceled basketball games with Utah Valley University.

Kean University went a step further on Wednesday, canceling out-of-state travel next week for five athletics teams during the university’s spring break. Kean made the move out of an “abundance of caution,” news outlets reported.

"This is consistent with the university's recommendation for the entire campus community to postpone spring break travel to limit possible exposure to COVID-19, avoid travel disruptions and reduce the risk of needing to self-quarantine upon their return," a spokeswoman for the university told NorthJersey.com.

Campus Preparations Ramp Up

Most colleges and universities appeared to have kept busy with their own planning and preparation amid the flurry of action by the CDC and federal government.

The University of Washington, for example, was preparing for scenarios of a possible escalation of the outbreak.

“Everything is on the table for us because we are really cooperating incredibly closely with the public health agencies in Seattle,” said Denzil Suite, UW’s vice president for student life. “We are not either predicting or precluding any course of action at this point.”

Many institutions have had coronavirus task forces in place for weeks or months. And colleges are publicly posting a wide range of information for students and employees.

Dr. Mark S. Schlissel, the University of Michigan’s president and a medical doctor, said Wednesday that the university has instructed students about recommended protocols for washing hands, covering sneezes and coughs, and socially isolating themselves if they think they’ve been exposed to the virus or might have it.

The university is publishing daily updates to a COVID-19 information page on its website.

“There’s a huge amount of uncertainty and a lot of concern,” Schlissel said. “We’re looking at it every single day and asking ourselves, ‘What is the right thing to do?’”

-- Several reporters and editors at Inside Higher Ed contributed to this article.

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