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As coronavirus fears end study abroad semesters early, disappointment and uncertainty linger

Chancellor of UMass Amherst Kumble R. Subbaswamy spoke at a morning press conference, along with other officials, to talk about continued preparedness planning for the coronavirus.
Chancellor of UMass Amherst Kumble R. Subbaswamy spoke at a morning press conference, along with other officials, to talk about continued preparedness planning for the coronavirus.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Manas Jain had spent the first month of his semester studying in Florence, Italy, and it was finally starting to feel like home.

But the spread of the coronavirus across Europe cut the University of Massachusetts Amherst junior’s trip short this week, as colleges and universities hurried to recall hundreds of students from abroad.

“A week ago, coronavirus didn’t seem like anything we needed to be worried about at all,” Jain said in a telephone interview with the Globe on Sunday. "And then all of a sudden we got pulled.”

Now, as the state urges schools to cancel planned trips and recommends quarantines for those returning from countries with the highest-level US travel warnings, some colleges and students are trying to untangle a thicket of uncertainties surrounding the future of their studies.

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“Everyone was bugging out, like, what kind of refunds do we want? Are we going to be able to complete our classes online?” Jain said.

As the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus and related deaths rapidly rose in Italy, UMass, which had previously offered its 168 students abroad there the option to return home, suspended its study abroad programs on Feb. 28, according to university spokesman Ed Blaguszewski. Students were ordered to fly back to the US by Friday.

“A week ago, coronavirus didn’t seem like anything we needed to be worried about at all,” Jain, a Pittsfield resident, said.

The spread of coronavirus in Italy led Mana Jain, a UMass Amherst junior, to end his study abroad semester after about a month.
The spread of coronavirus in Italy led Mana Jain, a UMass Amherst junior, to end his study abroad semester after about a month.Manas Jain (custom credit)/Manas Jain

But by Sunday, Italy had confirmed 1,694 cases of coronavirus, which had resulted in 34 deaths, according to wire reports.

“We recommend a two-week self-quarantine for all students returning from a Level 3 country,” UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said Wednesday morning at a press conference, where Governor Charlie Baker also urged schools, colleges, and universities to cancel planned trips overseas.

The university has also canceled its programs in China, South Korea, and Iran.

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“We understand the students’ desire to stay, but they need to return to the country,” Blaguszewski said.

If they choose to stay in Europe, it “could have adverse implications on your ability to maintain continuous enrollment at UMass for Spring Semester 2020, as well as insurance and financial aid,” according to a later e-mail from university officials.

Instead of heading to campus to complete classes, UMass students will attend online classes through their programs to finish credits they’ve paid for. UMass officials told the students in Italy that it will reimburse them for “flight change costs up to $500.” But they won’t be refunded for the program costs by the host organization, CIS Abroad, since credits will be completed online.

With thousands of international students enrolled at UMass, the university will provide housing on campus for students who wish to remain in the United States over spring break, Subaswammy said. The school’s spring break runs from March 15 to March 22.

On Monday, Emerson College announced that it will bring back 81 students who had been studying at the college’s Kasteel Well castle in the Netherlands since late January.

“It was a difficult decision to make,” Emerson College President Lee Pelton said in a telephone interview with the Globe. “There was no unanimity [among the students in the Netherlands] with respect to how the college should handle a fast moving and unpredictable set of circumstances with regards to the coronavirus.”

Pelton cited the castle’s distance from airports in Amsterdam, about 100 miles away, and Dusseldorf, about 50 miles away, as a primary concern if the coronavirus were to become more prevalent in the country. It’s the first time in the program’s history, as far as Pelton is aware, that the school has recalled the students from the castle.

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“The reason this is shocking is because it was just absolutely so abrupt, like, no one was prepared for it,” said Shawna Konieczny, a sophomore from Medford, Wis., in a telephone interview with the Globe from the Netherlands.

Of the 81 students at the castle, 78 will board a Delta Air Lines flight Friday and arrive in Boston on Friday night, Pelton said. The remaining students will not be on that particular flight due to personal circumstances, he said.

“It was very disappointing to learn,” said Katie Redefer, a sophomore from Rehoboth Beach, Del., in a telephone interview with the Globe from the Netherlands. “I think they did ultimately make the right decision, although it feels abrupt and dramatic, because if we were to be trapped here, that would be a much worse scenario.”

Once they return to Boston, the students will fill empty beds on campus, the students said. Using “distance technology” to communicate with professors based in central Europe, the students will take online classes every week and finish classes as scheduled, Pelton said. They are scheduled to finish classes on April 22, as originally planned, according to the students.

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With four students in Italy, Keene State College in New Hampshire is planning on returning them to the United States for a two-week quarantine before they’ll be allowed on campus. They also have one student in Japan, Wilbraham resident David Ardolino, who doesn’t want to leave anytime soon.

“I’ve been preparing to come here almost since my freshman year of college,” Ardolino, now a junior, told the Globe in a telephone interview from Japan. “Now that people are getting sent home, I’m getting kind of worried that I might. Honestly, I’d be devastated if I got sent home.”

Assigned a Level 2 alert from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Japan made the decision to close all middle schools, junior high schools, and high schools in the country for the month of March in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus. Kansai Gaidai University, where Ardolino is studying, will remain open, but there will be no in-person classes from March 2 until March 13, which will be followed by a week-long spring break, according to an e-mail from university officials.

In replacement of the physical classes, professors will use Blackboard, a virtual learning environment, “creatively to deliver lecture content, slides, videos and give tests. We must continue to meet the objectives of your course during this time in order to match the expectations of your host institution," the e-mail said.

“I’ve been getting hit up by people, everyone’s telling me to stay safe,” Ardolino said. “My mom keeps telling me to stockpile masks.”

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Anissa Gardizy, Caroline Enos, and Deirdre Fernandez contributed to this report. Matt Berg can be reached at matthew.berg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattberg33.