Alissa Xiao is confined to a bedroom in her parents home in the East Bay region of California. Xiao, 20, is a junior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She was forced to return home last week from a study abroad program in Italy because of the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.
“It’s very boring,” Xiao said. “Concerned would be another word I would say. And frustration, maybe, just with the lack of information I have right now from the university. I understand that it takes time to figure everything out, but I would say a lot of us are left in the dark with what’s going to happen next, and how this affects our four-year plan in college.”
The coronavirus has prompted many colleges and universities across the country to cancel study abroad programs — including the U of I. University officials announced via email on March 2 that students and staff had to leave Italy and the Daegu region of South Korea as soon as possible. The decision affected 137 students in Italy, and another 15 in South Korea. Students and staff are also barred from traveling to China, Iran, Italy and the Daegu region of South Korea on university business or using university resources.
The university also required all students returning to the U.S. to self-quarantine for 14 days before coming back to campus.
Xiao said the abrupt cancellation of her study abroad program has left her with more questions than answers about her academic future.
“The email (the U of I) sent was kind of vague,” she said. “And nothing else was really provided, nothing about what would happen to our academics, what parts of our program would be refunded to us. The main point of that email was: we want all students out of Italy right now.”
Xiao doesn’t know whether she’ll be able to take classes online, or what portion, if any, of her program’s tuition will be refunded.
Joe Hume, 21, another U of I junior studying in Italy, said he received the same email from the university. Hume said he was traveling with friends when he got the email and scrambled to get the next flight. When he flew from Italy to Poland, Hume said people in protective gear boarded their plane and took everyone’s temperature. His experience flying to Chicago was different.
“When we flew from Warsaw to Chicago, I was in and out of customs in like five minutes. It was almost as if nothing was happening,” Hume said.
Xiao said she had a similar experience when she flew from Milan to San Francisco International Airport. There were no extra screenings or precautions when she got to the U.S.
Hume and Xiao said they’ve figured out what self-quarantine means with their families. Xiao said her parents turned to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for guidance.
Hume is staying in a bedroom inside his parents’ home in the Chicago suburbs. He said his family will avoid all non-essential travel outside the house.
The students say they have not had any contact with their local health departments, nor did they know that that’s something they should have done.
Julie Pryde, administrator for the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, said it’s unfortunate those students aren’t in touch with their local health authorities. Her agency is in close contact with the handful of U of I students who returned to the Champaign-Urbana area after travel in Italy and other affected countries. Pryde said they’re in quarantine away from campus and have received kits that include face masks, trash bags, kleenex and other supplies. The students have explicit instructions on what to do and what not to do while in quarantine, and guidance on how to get help if they start showing symptoms.
Pryde doesn’t know what support students in other health districts across the country receive if they’re not in communication with their local health authorities.
“I would know if the health department was involved. But other than that, I don’t know. And I know that some health departments are probably overwhelmed, depending on where they’re going back to.”
Pryde strongly recommends that all students who self-quarantine when they return from countries affected by the virus reach out to their local public health districts.
Robin Kaler, a spokesperson for the U of I, said university staff know where all affected students are. However Kaler doesn’t know whether those students are in touch with their health department officials.
“We only control the things we have in our portfolio. And so we’re trying to do the best we can with what we can control,” she said.
Pryde, with the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, acknowledged that self-quarantine is done on the honor system. She said most people want to observe the quarantine, “but part of it is education, too. You have to educate them about why it is important, and what it means.”
The U of I is far from the only university grappling with these challenges. Eric McNulty, associate director of Harvard’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, said decisions about pulling students and staff from international locales can use different criteria from one institution to another.
He said it’s impossible to monitor all students at all times.
“A lot of our public health relies on good individual practice and individual responsibility. And so it may not be the most watertight system, but it’s the system we have,” he said. McNulty added that that means good guidance and communication is key.
McNulty hopes that universities and colleges as well as local, state, and federal health authorities learn something from the current pandemic, and develop better responses. Research institutions have students and staff who travel all over the world, and often live on campus in close quarters. McNulty said that makes them a unique population with specialized health concerns.
“In this country, we’ve got so many, so many students, and as well as faculty and staff, that we are a distinct subset of a larger community with specific needs,” he said.
The U of I’s Kaler said questions about academic coursework and tuition refunds for the students whose programs were canceled will be handled individually. She said students in other international programs have also been offered the opportunity to return to the U.S. and so far about 40 have taken the university up on that offer.
Kaler said she understands why some students may feel frustrated right now.
“Anytime you have uncertainty, it’s frightening,” she said. “And we’re getting answers as quickly as we can.”