All universities asked to ‘consider’ cancelling exchanges

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have issued guidance in response to the global outbreak of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) advising all higher education institutions to “consider postponing or cancelling” upcoming foreign exchange programmes and to consider asking current programme participants to return to their home country.

Higher education institutions should also consider asking students participating in study abroad programmes to return to the United States, the advice issued on 1 March says.

“Those overseeing student foreign exchange programmes should be aware that students may face unpredictable circumstances, travel restrictions, challenges in returning home or accessing health care while abroad.”

The CDC said higher education institutions should work with state and local public health officials to determine the best approach for when and how their study abroad students might return – for instance, chartered transportation for countries or areas assessed as high-risk for exposure.

“All plans for returning study abroad students should be designed to protect participants from stigma and discrimination,” the guidance says.

“The COVID-19 situation is dynamic. Given the speed of spread and the number of countries experiencing human-to-human transmission, higher education institutions should evaluate the risks associated with choosing to maintain programmes abroad and take the appropriate proactive measures.

“Higher education institutions that continue to maintain programmes abroad should monitor cdc.gov/COVID-19 for additional information,” the guidance says.

The coronavirus was first detected in China and has now been detected in almost 70 locations internationally, including in the United States, CDC says.

Some international destinations including the US are now experiencing community spread of the virus, where some people have been infected and it is not known how or where they became exposed. As of 1 March, there were 73 cases of coronavirus in the US.

The US Department of State had upgraded its warning against travel to China to the highest level in late January and added parts of Italy and South Korea to level 4 status last weekend.

A key problem for US higher education institutions is that China is also the leading country of origin of international students studying in the US and is the seventh most popular destination for US students studying abroad. Many higher education institutions have programmes in China.

US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced last week that her agency is creating a task force to prepare for the possible impacts of the coronavirus. Meanwhile, federal health officials urged all Americans to start preparing for the possibility that more aggressive measures might be needed to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The warning came in response to outbreaks of the virus outside China, including in Iran, Japan, South Korea, Italy, Israel and Brazil, which officials say have raised the likelihood the virus will spread further in the United States.

In interim guidance for administrators of US higher education institutions issued on 2 March, CDC said health officials are taking steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 into US communities, and higher education institutions can “play an important role in this effort”.

Through collaboration and coordination with local health departments, higher education institutions should disseminate information about the disease and its potential transmission to their students, staff and faculty. Higher education institutions should prepare to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among their students, staff and faculty should local health officials identify such a need.

They should also continue to collaborate, share information and review plans with local health officials to help protect their entire higher education community, including those who may be at risk for severe disease with COVID-19.

“IHE [institution of higher education] plans should be designed to minimise disruption and protect students and staff from social stigma and discrimination.”

US colleges expand recall

According to the American Council on Education, colleges and higher education institutions have already expanded their recall of students and faculty from overseas programmes and cancelled more upcoming trips due to the outbreak. Others are switching to online only study to manage the potential spread.

For example, Stanford University, California – where a state emergency was declared on 5 March after the announcement of California's first coronavirus death – issued updated travel guidance on 4 March, covering both domestic and international travel. It is restricting university-sponsored international travel to any country in order to support “social distancing” and reduce Stanford’s contribution to the potential spread of infection to other areas, “in support of global health”.

The guidance says: “We realise the impacts may include cancelled trips, the window of time that research can be done, and for some researchers the contractual obligation to complete projects involving international travel.”

Exceptions may be granted by a dean, vice president or vice provost but no exceptions will be made for undergraduates and those who do travel are told to understand that in a changing situation the current requirement on return for 14 days self-isolation may be extended.

In addition, all spring quarter study programmes under the Bing Overseas Study Program scheduled to take place outside the US have been suspended.

Announcing the measures, Stanford University’s Senior Vice Provost for Education Harry Elam, said: “It’s important to emphasise that this is a temporary suspension of our study abroad programmes. The university remains deeply committed to global education, and we intend to resume our programmes abroad as soon as we are able.”

However, the university is also recommending against domestic travel to reduce the spread of the disease via “greater social distancing”. It advises staff that this can be achieved by using technology such as Zoom or teleconferencing to avoid large gatherings and also telecommuting for individual employees where feasible.

In addition, standard preventive advice has been issued: stay at home when sick, wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds, cough or sneeze into your elbow and don’t touch your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.