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New England schools cancel study abroad trips to China, scramble to bring students home

A woman wore a protective face mask at the departure hall of Changi international airport in Singapore on Thursday.
A woman wore a protective face mask at the departure hall of Changi international airport in Singapore on Thursday.ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images

More than 10 colleges and universities in New England have suspended their spring study abroad programs in China and some are scrambling to bring back students already there, amid rising concern over the fast-spreading coronavirus that has sickened thousands and led to some 170 deaths.

The decision by the schools mirrors similar reactions by companies that do business in China. A growing number of major airlines have halted or reduced flights to and from the country.

The international community is struggling with how to respond to the outbreak, particularly in China, which now has more cases of the mysterious illness than it had with SARS, a respiratory infection, that spread across that country in 2002 and 2003, the World Health Organization said Wednesday.

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During the SARS outbreak, China reported 5,327 cases and 349 deaths. The number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus increased to 7,711 worldwide Wednesday, with all but 68 of the infections taking place in mainland China, the organization said.

Five US cases have been reported, but no deaths.

In New England, Boston University’s program in Shanghai, slated to begin in the middle of February, has been “indefinitely postponed,” spokesman Colin Riley said. Twenty students had signed up for the program but had not left yet.

The University of Rhode Island suspended its three study abroad programs in China, and arranged to bring home seven students who had already been studying there, a spokesman said.

“We made a decision yesterday to get all seven students home,” Dave Lavallee, assistant director of communications and marketing at URI, said Wednesday. “We called the parents and students by 2 p.m., and they’re on their way back.”

None of the students have had any symptoms of the virus, and they lived in relatively low-risk areas in China, Lavallee said.

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Middlebury College in Vermont has canceled a program it operates in China for students from both the private school and other colleges. Thirty-seven students were signed up to attend. Ten of those students are currently in China and all will be out by Saturday, spokeswoman Sarah Ray said.

“This is not a decision we take lightly but there is too much at stake to risk any other course of action,” dean of international programs Carlos Velez said in a statement.

Although the University of Maine Orono did not have any study abroad programs in China planned for the spring, two students from the university are in China with another exchange program, spokeswoman Margaret Nagle said. The university is working to return the students to the United States.

Harvard University did not immediately have information on how many students or faculty are currently in China or planning to go there soon, but officials sent the entire university community an e-mail discouraging anyone from traveling there and urging safety precautions for those who are there.

Simmons University canceled a study abroad program one student was scheduled to participate in, spokeswoman Laura Wareck said.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst also suspended its program. Seven students had planned to travel to Shanghai and Beijing next month, according to spokeswoman Mary Dettloff. Although the students on campus had not left, two graduate students and two faculty members are currently in China. They are in lower-risk areas and have not shown any symptoms of the virus, Dettloff said.

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UMass Amherst will reevaluate the program in coming months, she said.

At nearby Amherst College, all three study abroad programs to China were canceled before students left, spokeswoman Caroline Hanna said.

Five students from Providence College in Rhode Island were scheduled to leave in March for China until the college suspended the program, spokeswoman Madeline Parmenter said.

In Boston, Suffolk University canceled its study abroad program to China, which two students were scheduled to participate in, according to spokesman Greg Gatlin. The university has two business seminars scheduled in China in May and has yet to decide whether those will proceed.

Two students from Worcester’s Clark University were supposed to study abroad in Beijing and Shanghai, but the program was suspended, spokeswoman Angela Bazydlo said.

The World Health Organization will reconvene its emergency committee Thursday to determine whether the coronavirus outbreak, which is believed to have started in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, amounts to a public health emergency of international concern.

Outside China, other countries in the region also are reporting more people infected — nearly all of them tourists from China. No one outside China has died of the virus, however.

The new virus is from the coronavirus family, which includes those that can cause the common cold as well as more serious illnesses such as SARS and MERS.

The first cases in the Middle East were confirmed Wednesday, a family of four from Wuhan that was visiting the United Arab Emirates. Airlines around the world announced they were cutting flights to China, and Hong Kong was suspending rail travel to and from the mainland at midnight.

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In China, the outbreak has affected international sporting events. The International Hockey Federation postponed Pro League games in China, and soccer, basketball, and boxing qualifiers for the Tokyo Olympics in February have been moved outside of the country.

McDonald’s, KFC, and Apple have also announced closures in China. Walt Disney said it would temporarily close its Disneyland and Disneytown parks in Shanghai. Ikea said it would close nearly half of its 30 Chinese locations.

Some of Apple’s Chinese suppliers now are scheduled to remain closed until Feb. 10, chief executive Tim Cook told investors Tuesday.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming eight-concert tour to East Asia also appears to be in jeopardy. The orchestra is expected to make a decision about whether to go forward by Thursday.

In China’s Hubei province, 17 cities including Wuhan have been locked down, trapping more than 50 million people in the most far-reaching disease control measures ever imposed.

Foreigners are being evacuated from Wuhan. Many countries are also curtailing flights to China, with British Airways suspending its two daily flights and India and Kazakhstan cutting back as well.

Screenings for the coronavirus started at Boston’s Logan International Airport on Tuesday.

Material from Globe wire services was used in this report. Matt Berg can be reached at matthew.berg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattberg33.


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.