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Coronavirus presents challenges for WA universities with study abroad programs

Andrew Medichini
AP Photo
Florence, Italy, is a popular destination for university students studying abroad. Gonzaga University has asked its students in Florence to return to their home residences amid an outbreak of coronavirus in Italy.

More than 50 countries now have confirmed cases of the coronavirus known as COVID-19, and that’s presenting challenges for colleges and universities in Washington that have students studying abroad.

Gonzaga University said earlier this week that it's suspending its program in Florence, Italy, and asking its 161 students to return to their home residences. Italy has had the most cases in Europe so far. As of Feb. 27, the World Health Organization reported 400 confirmed coronavirus cases and 12 deaths in Italy.

“None of the students has shown any symptoms of coronavirus,” said Pete Tormey, associate director of public relations for Gonzaga, which is based in Spokane. “As far as we know, they are healthy and coming back healthy.”

But the university said in a statement that it made the decision to suspend the program out of concern that if the students remain in Italy, they’re “at risk for in-country quarantines, limitations on travel and limited access to basic services.”

Other universities are taking a different approach. Washington State University has a total of about 80 students studying in Florence and Milan. Phil Weiler, WSU vice president for marketing and communications, said the university has been communicating frequently with students there and is not ordering them to return.

“We’re letting students at this point decide for themselves if they want to continue or if they want to take advantage of the opportunity to finish up online,” Weiler said.

The rapidly changing situation regarding the virus means that some students have had to drop their study abroad plans. Weiler said administrators just had to tell a student that he would not be able to go to South Korea as he had planned. That was based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The student understood. I think he was very disappointed, obviously, and quite frankly, he’s in a bit of a bind because classes (at WSU) have been underway now since January,” Weiler said.

The student will likely do an internship because it's too late to jump into classes this semester, he said.

Weiler said WSU has a public health emergency task force that's meeting frequently to discuss how to keep students and staff safe from the virus. He said they're evaluating which of their courses could be taught online in the event the university has to stop conducting class face to face.

The University of Washington is advising students studying abroad to continue their programs, but to check their email frequently in case things change.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.