As of Thursday, March 12, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States had surpassed 1,300, per The New York Times. As coronavirus continues to spread, many colleges and universities are trying to figure out how to best protect their students. In cities and states that have confirmed coronavirus cases, some colleges are canceling in-person classes, closing campuses, and working on providing remote lectures in their place. If you're a college student or parent, here's what to know about coronavirus and college campuses as officials try to contain the spread of the virus.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the outbreak of coronavirus — which is also referred to by the respiratory illness it causes, COVID-19 — is "an emerging, rapidly evolving situation." The CDC's most updated guidance as of March 11 notes the majority of people in the United States are not at immediate risk of being exposed to coronavirus. However, the CDC also acknowledges there may be more community spread as new cases arise, which means that some people may become infected without a clear indication of how they were exposed to the virus. For this reason, the CDC has advised institutions of higher education to take steps now to contain the spread of the illness, given that college campuses can be breeding grounds for infectious diseases.
On March 10 and 11, colleges and universities began taking that guidance to its furthest point. Over the span of two days, multiple campuses, including University of Michigan, Penn State, New York's SUNY and CUNY systems, and more all announced they were moving classes online to prevent further spread of the virus. Some schools, including Harvard University, went as far as closing their campuses and ordering students to leave their dorms.
That's because students typically live and work in such close proximity to one another on college campuses, according to Dr. Rachael Piltch-Loeb, a Preparedness Fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "The minute there is a case in a college or university setting, the likelihood that it spreads is incredibly high because of how closely together students live," Piltch-Loeb says.
For schools without a confirmed coronavirus case, the CDC has recommended officials promote basic hygiene and other preventative measures. For institutions of higher education that do have confirmed coronavirus cases, however, the CDC has advised school officials to determine whether any students were exposed to the virus, temporarily suspend classes, cancel large events, and develop support plans for students, faculty, and staff. This last part of the CDC guidance is especially important, according to Renata Schiavo, Ph.D, MA, CCL, a senior lecturer at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health's Department of Sociomedical Sciences, because many students can't simply leave campus on such short notice.
"There are students who don’t have a 'home' to go back to, such as international students from countries with high levels of COVID-19 infection (e.g., Italy, Iran) or U.S. students from low-income backgrounds or who may come from broken homes or may not have funds to travel at this time," says Schiavo, who is also the founder and president of the Health Equity Initiative's board of directors. "These students unfortunately are going to be the most affected — as always for disadvantaged populations — so colleges should prepare to help them address their specific needs before [making] any decision." She calls whether to close a "complex" decision which schools should make in consideration of recommendations from the CDC and local health officials.
Part of the CDC's support plan guidance includes a request for school officials to provide support for Asian and Asian American students who may be facing stigma or discrimination due to coronavirus. Given that many students across the country can't afford to simply leave campus — due to financial precariousness or immigration status, for example — the CDC has also encouraged school officials to continue offering food and safe housing to students who need it. As of March 11, more than 500,000 students across the country had been impacted by class cancelations, NPR reported.
The U.S. Department of Education (DOE)'s Office of Federal Student Aid has issued guidance to school officials in order to accommodate students whose classes may have been suspended due to coronavirus. According to the guidance, the DOE is giving many schools approval to offer their classes online, and is permitting students to take leaves of absence due to coronavirus.
As the CDC and the DOE continue to work with university officials around the country, the most important thing students and parents should keep in mind is not to panic. According to the CDC, practicing basic hygiene, avoiding large gatherings, and staying home when sick can go a long way toward containing coronavirus and keeping your community healthy.
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Elite Daily's coverage of coronavirus here.