Colleges curtail study abroad programs on virus fears

  • UMass Amherst campus Massachusetts Office Of Travel & Tourism

  • The Silvio O. Conte National Center for Polymer Research at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Staff Writer
Published: 2/26/2020 10:06:03 PM

AMHERST — As fears of the spread of coronavirus continue to mount, the University of Massachusetts has canceled or suspended study abroad programs in South Korea.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week assigned the country a Level 3 travel warning, which discourages all nonessential travel to South Korea. With 1,146 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus as of Wednesday, the country is the site of the largest outbreak outside of China.

Other area colleges are also keeping a close eye on the situation, with Italy, Japan and Iran now at a Level 2 travel warning, meaning that older adults and people with chronic health conditions should avoid traveling to the affected countries.

Smith College has told students that study abroad programs will be suspended in countries that reach a Level 3 warning, according to an email obtained by the Gazette. Hampshire College spokesman John Courtmanche said that the college is “continually monitoring and evaluating the situation.”

Some students at Amherst College, which facilitates all of its abroad programs through partner organizations, are completing their semesters abroad via remote learning, said college spokeswoman Caroline Hanna. This includes students enrolled in a program in Florence, Italy, through Syracuse University. Among organizations offering study abroad programs in South Korea, “some have canceled and some are still deciding,” Hanna said.

A Mount Holyoke College spokeswoman declined to provide an update on Wednesday.

The Italian Ministry of Health has reported 400 confirmed cases, including 12 deaths, and Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare reported “147 patients and 17 asymptomatic carriers” confirmed on Wednesday. Japan’s total does not include passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, who were quarantined off the coast of Yokohama.

Italy, China and Japan are all among the most popular study abroad destinations for American students, according to the U.S. Department of State. Italy was the second-most popular destination as of 2016, and China and Japan also made the top 10, ranked sixth and tenth in popularity, respectively.

UMass did not say how many students were affected by the closing of its study abroad programs in South Korea. The university said they would be offered other study abroad options, or they can return to UMass.

UMass is “closely monitoring the outbreak in Italy” and advising students to take extra precautions, according to university spokesman Ed Blaguszewski, though no students are being withdrawn. Currently, 168 UMass students are studying in Italy, Blaguszewski said, and none has reported coronavirus symptoms. Symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath, according to the CDC, and can range from mild to severe.

China, where the virus originated in the city of Wuhan, has been at a Level 3 warning since late January. China has reported 78,190 cases of coronavirus and 2,718 deaths, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a briefing in Geneva on Wednesday. Countries outside of China have seen a combined total of 2,790 cases among 37 countries, with 44 deaths recorded.

Last month, the five colleges told the Gazette that no students would be studying abroad in China during the spring semester. UMass canceled all study abroad programs in China for this semester, and students at Smith, Mount Holyoke, Hampshire and Amherst colleges either opted not to go to China or had their programs canceled by study abroad providers.

Smith has about a dozen students currently studying in Italy, South Korea or Japan, according to college spokeswoman Stacey Schmeidel. Schmeidel said Wednesday in an email that “at this point, Smith hasn’t announced any changes” to its abroad programs.

In an email obtained by the Gazette, Smith College officials told students enrolled in the college’s Florence program that Smith “will suspend operations in any country whose CDC warning level reaches alert above three.” The email was signed by Susan Etheredge, dean of the college and vice president for campus life, and Stacie Kroll, director of compliance and risk management for the Five Colleges Inc.

If the program is suspended, students will be able to continue their work remotely from home, Etheredge and Kroll wrote. At the current Level 2 designation, they urged “a need to practice enhanced precautions.”

Students who wish to return to the U.S. regardless also can complete their semester remotely, the officials said.

Amherst College has 26 students studying in Italy and four who plan to study in South Korea later in the semester, according to college spokeswoman Caroline Hanna.

“These partners are acting quickly to respond to changing situations in areas of the world that are affected and/or are receiving large numbers of visitors, and are making informed and cautious decisions about the status of their programs,” Hanna wrote in an email to the Gazette.

For students who are currently abroad, “one program recently canceled their semester and is finding alternatives for completing the courses via remote learning,” she said. “Other programs are following local recommendations and having students complete coursework remotely for a short period of time while remaining in their host cities.”

At Hampshire College, 34 students are abroad via exchange or field study programs, said college spokesman John Courtmanche, who did not specify if any students are in countries with travel warnings. The college has contacted all of these students, Courtmanche said, and is “in frequent contact with our study abroad partners and programs.”

He added, “we are reassuring our students that we’re committed to doing what we can to support them for their health and safety, and to ensure they can complete their academic work this semester.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at

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