Study abroad programs in Europe move to online learning and Occidental students return home

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View of Florence and the Florence Cathedral from the Tower of Giotto. Jan. 7, 2020. Pablo Nukaya-Petralia/The Occidental

In response to the increasing number of COVID-19 cases in Europe, multiple study abroad programs have moved online and Occidental students are choosing to return home. President Donald Trump’s 30-day ban on travel from Europe does not apply to U.S. citizens and permanent residents, according to the Department of Homeland Security. In an email IPO sent to all students studying abroad March 12, International Programs Office (IPO) Director Robin Craggs said that if a student’s program has the option for online learning from home, students may leave their study abroad country and return home if they notify IPO. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), older adults and people who are immunocompromised are at risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

Following a nationwide lockdown in Italy, all eight students studying in Italy through IES Abroad have returned home as of March 12 to finish their courses online. The CDC issued a Level 3 “Avoid Nonessential Travel” warning for the majority of European countries March 11. Many larger universities have also canceled their study abroad programs in Italy for the semester at the recommendation of the CDC. Occidental’s student travel policy allows IPO to make exceptions to global rankings such as Level 3 warnings and modify programs, Craggs said.

“[Occidental’s student travel policy] gives us the option. In fact, it obligates us to have an evidence-based, nuanced reaction to really do our due diligence,” Craggs said. 

Each program, Craggs said, has a different academic continuity plan that prevents loss of academic credits in the case of extenuating circumstances such as moving to online courses. IES Abroad programs in Madrid, Spain, are online temporarily following a government suspension of schools. CIEE Abroad programs in Prague, Czech Republic have switched to online courses until further notice. Amy Kang (junior) was studying abroad in Geneva, Switzerland, through School for International Training (SIT). She said March 12 that her program “International Studies and Multilateral Diplomacy” will be switching to remote learning and she will return home. Starting March 16, IES programs in Paris, France, will move to online learning through Moodle and Zoom. IES is in the process of moving all IES Abroad Center standard program courses online as of March 12.

Before the semester began, CIEE canceled their study abroad programs in China, affecting three Occidental students who had to return to campus for the spring semester. IES Tokyo, Japan, and Sophia University Exchange, Japan were also canceled prior to the start of the program, according to Craggs. 

Students who choose to remain in affected locations will have the academic and health support of on-site staff, according to Craggs.

“IES is still going to be there if the students get sick, they’re still providing academic programs, the structure is there and they’re communicating. Help is there, and if [students] were just on their own, we’d have a different opinion,” Craggs said.

Craggs leads the IPO’s crisis management committee, which also includes members of Academic Affairs and the Legal and Environmental Health & Safety committees. According to Vice President of Communications and Institutional Initiatives and lead of the coordinating task force on COVID-19 Marty Sharkey, the crisis management committee convenes in every study abroad emergency and decides whether to allow students to stay in their country of study or return home. The committee, he said, consults with on-campus experts such as Emmons Wellness Center, on-site staff at affected locations, Occidental’s study abroad partners and national professional resources such as the Forum on Education Abroad and NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

Many study abroad programs including IES and CIEE require students to enroll in CISI health insurance. According to Craggs, the insurance covers hospitalization costs if students are infected with COVID-19.

Craggs said that at the beginning of the semester, IPO gave students studying abroad in Italy a stipend of $3,700–3,800 for meals and transportation, which they could use to offset flight costs to leave the country. Donna Rowshan (junior) was studying abroad in Milan this semester but returned home to LA at her parents’ request March 2 to finish her coursework online. She said she wished the college made the effort to offer flight assistance or financial compensation for students who had to return home.

Rowshan said she was concerned that no one screened her for the coronavirus when she arrived at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). The week of Feb. 23, Rowshan said IES moved to online classes for the week and she had to stay in her apartment, only leaving to buy groceries. That one week turned into two weeks, Rowshan said. IES strongly recommended March 10 that students in Rome leave Italy as soon as possible. 

Rowshan said she chose to leave Italy because amid the coronavirus concerns spreading across Europe, her study abroad experience was not enjoyable.

“I just felt like the quality of my life there was not good,” Rowshan said. “As much as it sucks, I would rather be at home comfortable and being able to do what I want to be able to do instead of being forced into my apartment and not going out. I’m in this wonderful city and I want to go out and explore, but I can’t.” 

Rowshan said she is thankful that she can finish her semester online because she needs the academic credits to graduate. While Rowshan said she hopes to return to Italy eventually, she thinks Occidental could have been more adamant about bringing students back to the U.S.

“I think they should have been a little more erring on the side of caution, instead of ‘Do whatever you want, go if you want,’” Rowshan said.

CIEE canceled their spring 2020 Seoul, South Korea, study abroad program Feb. 25. Sarah Yi (junior) said she had to take a leave of absence because it was too late to enroll in classes. Because she had enough Advanced Placement (AP) credits, she is still on track to graduate. She said she is planning on staying in LA and is looking for internships, and she is also in the process of receiving a refund for her program. CIEE offered her the option of moving to a program in London, England, but she declined.

“What if they just send me back? I didn’t want to go through all this hassle and waiting and worrying again,” Yi said.

DIS Study Abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark, suspended all classes March 12 and asked students to return home after the Danish government closed all state schools for the next two weeks. Chiaki Ma (junior) is one of five Occidental students studying in Denmark. Since March 10, Ma has been quarantined for two weeks in her apartment after exposure to COVID-19 and cannot return to the U.S. with the other Occidental students. She said she went to a party March 7 and later learned that someone present had tested positive for the virus. After her quarantine, she said she will return home, but is worried she might be quarantined again on arrival in the U.S.

Erin Zhang (junior) is studying abroad in Panama through The School for Field Studies (SFS) and received an email March 13 saying that SFS is suspending all programs by March 21 and students must return home. She said her situation is more complicated because she lives in Shanghai, China, and does not have relatives elsewhere.

According to Occidental’s COVID-19 update page, there are currently no cases of the virus in the Occidental community.