Study Abroad Offices Adapt to COVID-19
March 23, 2020
Universities grapple with how to educate students – and keep them safe – not only on their home campuses, but in study abroad programs around the world.
NOTE: Institutional responses to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are evolving. Therefore, current campus policies and procedures may have changed since the writing of this article.
Portland State University (PSU) is facing the same challenge as all other institutions of higher education across the United States. With rapid global spreading of the COVID-19 virus, the public research university is wrestling with the implications for its study abroad programs, as well as programs on the home campus in Portland, Ore.
“When the coronavirus outbreak escalated in China earlier this year, the university had three students studying abroad there. Two returned home, and one – a Chinese national – opted to remain in the country with his family. PSU indefinitely suspended all 18 study abroad programs in China that it offers students, many through program providers.”
On March 1, PSU leaders implemented a broad policy for determining what other study abroad programs should be discontinued, deferring to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s rating system for travel health advisories. “The health and safety of our students overseas is something we take very seriously,” says Ron L. Witczak, executive director of the Office of International Affairs at PSU. “Our students have returned home, or will return home, from any country that is a Warning Level 3.”
“As of March 9, Level 3 countries – those that the CDC recommends avoiding for nonessential travel due specifically to COVID-19 – include China, Iran, Italy and South Korea. In addition to the two students in China, PSU has brought home four students from an exchange program in South Korea and six from a study abroad program in Italy. All have adhered to a 14-day self-imposed quarantine.”
Duke University has restricted all university-funded travel to any country the CDC assigns Level 2 status and above, as well as all domestic and international non-essential, university-sponsored travel. For Amanda Kelso, Executive Director of the Global Education Office at Duke and Assistant Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, the decision to shutter programs is prudent, but disheartening.”
“For international educators, there’s a bit of a mourning process taking place. This isn’t what we do,” says Kelso. “We don’t dismantle education abroad programs; we make them possible. To dismantle them is heartbreaking.”
Special Committees Arise to Weigh Substantial Considerations
While decisions affecting study abroad programs and international travel are made at the highest levels of university leadership, often among presidents, provosts and boards of trustees, both Duke and PSU have multidisciplinary committees advising leaders. Duke has a standing Emergency Steering Committee that considers everything from crowd control at football games to campus drone policies. Kelso and a health, safety and security officer from her office are members of that committee, as well as a recently spun off coronavirus sub-committee.
“We started having daily coronavirus calls in which we discussed all aspects of management and planning for what might happen, both in Durham, North Carolina, at Duke and in all of Duke’s activities around the world,” says Kelso. While the majority of Duke’s study abroad programs occur in the fall – a 5-to-1 ratio compared to spring – the university maintains a robust international presence.
One of its flagship endeavors is Duke Kunshan University in China, which began offering a Global Learning Semester program in 2014 and a four-year bachelor’s degree program in 2018. When the coronavirus outbreak locked down the 200-acre campus in Jiangsu province, the university delayed its semester start from Feb. 3 to Feb. 24 and moved all instruction by its 100-plus faculty members to online delivery.
As of early March, the coronavirus sub-committee was meeting two to three times a week. “It has been extremely helpful for my team to have representation on that committee – to give feedback to upper administration and have them hear our concerns,” says Kelso.
Witczak is a member of Portland State University’s Incident Management Team (IMT) regarding COVID-19, which includes more than 25 faculty and staff from finance and administration, facilities management, academics, the registrar’s office, enrollment management and other offices. The group, which meets twice a week, focuses on three primary areas: international travel, academics and operational needs of the campus.
“Each IMT member reaches out to counterparts in our respective worlds and brings insight back to the IMT,” says Witczak. “A couple of doctors on the team are working closely with the Multnomah County Health Department [where PSU is located] and the Oregon Health Authority. It’s imperative we work together because the situation is changing so fast.”
Advice for Responding to a Situation in Constant Flux
Because of the fluidity of COVID-19 and university responses, both Duke and PSU provide frequent updates to information on their websites. (Here are Duke’s and Portland State’s coronavirus responses.) While the rapidly evolving landscape presents unique challenges for preparation and mitigation planning – indeed, it’s a moving target – Witczak and Kelso offer some overall advice for their peers in international education:
The spread of the coronavirus is a dynamic situation, unlike anything most international education professionals have ever seen before. “The speed by which decisions are made and new developments take place has been incredible,” says Kelso. As hard as some of the early decisions were, Kelso feels ready to tackle what’s next.
“We’ve been doing contingency planning steadily now for several weeks,” she says. “Plans made related to study abroad programs in South Korea and Italy have been a sort of ‘pilot program.’ Now, we have templates in place, know the issues that will arise and can think in advance about other areas that will be hard hit by COVID-19.”