Italy study abroad programs affected by spread of coronavirus

Sofie Jones and Kitt Urdang

Ten students enrolled in study abroad programs in Italy are facing uncertainty about the rest of their semester due to the country’s coronavirus outbreak and subsequent program cancellations. Many students have already left Italy and will finish the semester through online classes. 

Italy currently has the largest outbreak of COVID-19 outside of Asia, with over 2,500 infections thus far and a death toll nearing 80, according to The New York Times. Cases are concentrated in Northern Italy, where several students were studying. 

Students whose programs are suspended will not be allowed to return to the College at this point in the term, according to Chief Communications Officer Jim Reische. “It’s too late to come back and join the semester already in progress on campus,” he said. “If people’s programs [get] closed down, the College is going to work with them to find other options.” 

All of the students’ programs will be offering online classes, through which students can finish the semester. In a break from its standard policy, the College will grant these students credit for courses completed virtually, according to Christina Stoiciu, the College’s director of study away. The College will also provide support for students who will need to make up for course deficiencies over the summer, said Vice President for Campus Life Steve Klass. 

Several students have already returned to the United States, including Christian Maloney ’21, who was studying abroad in Rome as part of the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies (ICCS) program. Duke University, which runs the center, suspended the program on Sunday morning. Maloney will resume ICCS classes virtually from home. 

Peter Knowlton ’21, who was studying in Padua, a city outside of Venice, also left after his program’s cancellation. Although the College reached out to him regarding plans should an outbreak occur, Knowlton deferred to his program’s decision, which did not force him to return to the U.S. Knowlton added that some other universities with students in the program required their students to leave Italy, regardless of the program’s final decision. 

Knowlton, who will also continue his courses online, is in the process of figuring out what the next few months will look like for him. “It’s really been a whirlwind,” he said. “I only found out Saturday afternoon, and since then it’s been a combination of hectic logistical work and emotional goodbyes.” 

Maya Spalding-Fecher ’21, who enrolled in the Syracuse Florence Center program, received word of the program’s suspension on Feb. 25 and was asked to leave Italy by last Sunday. The rapid change of plans surprised Spalding-Fecher, even though distress surrounding the coronavirus has been building internationally. “I was pretty shattered when I heard the announcement from Syracuse,” she said. “It came as such a shock and was something that I’d never imagined would happen. I was finally starting to feel like I was settled in and getting to know the city better and [made] good friends, so such a sudden end to all that was really tough to come to terms with.” 

While Spalding-Fecher’s plans remain in flux, she hopes to stay in Europe. She will continue her classes online while staying with family in Switzerland. “Obviously, though, the situation changes rapidly day to day, so if it gets bad enough then I might have to go home, but I’m hoping that this won’t be the case,” she said. 

Three other students studying in Florence have left Italy and will return to the U.S. today.

While most programs have been suspended already, some institutions have yet to come to a decision. At the Rome IES program, where Emma Paquette ’21 is currently enrolled, students were given the option to stay in Italy or return home last Thursday. Paquette stayed in Rome but noted that 85 percent of the program’s students decided to leave, often at the urging of their home institutions. 

While she remains in Rome for now, Paquette does not yet know if the program will stay open for the rest of the semester. The program itself is currently only offering classes virtually but will resume in-person instruction or ask all students to leave Italy and complete their courses remotely. “A clear course of action hasn’t been determined,” she said.

Because of the quickly changing status of the coronavirus outbreak, Klass said, the College will continue to monitor the situation and remain flexible as issues arise. “We’re not aware of other program closures on the horizon,” Klass said as of Tuesday night. He noted, however, that given the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that universities “consider” recalling students studying abroad, this could change rapidly.

College administrators have begun preparing for the possible cancellation of study abroad programs next fall, according to emails sent to students by Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom and Director of the Office of Student Life Doug Schiazza. “If programs are cancelled over the summer, we will make room for people here,” Reische said. While conversations about possible solutions are being discussed, this is purely a hypothetical scenario at present, according to Reische. “We have to have a plan in place in case we need it, and hope we don’t need it,” Reische said.