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The coronavirus has upended life on campus

At MIT, in response to the novel coronavirus, large classes will now be held online. Other area universities are assessing their response.
At MIT, in response to the novel coronavirus, large classes will now be held online. Other area universities are assessing their response.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Amherst College announced late Monday that its courses will be taught remotely after its spring break ends, and MIT said its large classes will be conducted online, as the novel coronavirus continued to upend life on college campuses throughout New England and across the country.

The decision by Amherst, to essentially shutdown student life on campus, appeared to be the first of its kind in Massachusetts, and follows similar steps in recent days by Stanford University, Princeton University, and Columbia University, which have shifted most of their courses from on-campus to a virtual format.

University leaders at Harvard, Northeastern, Boston College, and Boston University have also urged their faculty to prepare in case their schools need to move to online education, but haven’t made an official decision yet.

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"We know that many people will travel widely during spring break, no matter how hard we try to discourage it. The risk of having hundreds of people return from their travels to the campus is too great,” said Amherst president Carolyn “Biddy” Martin in a letter to the campus. "The best time to act in ways that slow the spread of the virus is now.”

Amherst said the remote classes would begin on March 23 after spring break. The college also canceled classes at the end of this week, so faculty can prepare for the change.

On Monday, MIT announced that all classes with more than 150 students will be conducted online amid fears about the potential spread of the coronavirus. Students in 20 classes universitywide will be impacted by the change, the university anticipated. MIT still plans to hold midterm exams for these classes, but said students would be spread across several rooms during the tests, to limit their contact with each other.

American higher education institutions have been monitoring the global reaction to the coronavirus since January, but in recent days they’ve rapidly escalated their responses, said Brad Farnsworth, the vice president of global engagement at the American Council on Education, a trade organization.

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Two weeks ago, universities were bringing back students from study abroad programs in countries most affected by the coronavirus, such as Italy. Now some are urging students going on spring break to stay away from campus afterward and take classes remotely.

“What was surprising is the snowball effect,” Farnsworth said. "This kind of really strong, proactive action may turn out to be very smart; we just don’t know.”

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has no coronavirus cases on campus, and the risk remains low, but the university had to move quickly to prevent potential transmission of the illness, officials said in an internal MIT news publication.

“Our approach is to be aggressive, but to move forward in stages,” Ian Waitz, MIT’s vice chancellor for undergraduate and graduate education, wrote Monday in a letter to deans and department heads. "While keeping in mind that some individual faculty and departments may be moving faster than others, that the level of comfort with remote teaching varies, and that some classes may translate better than others to alternative formats.”

Brown University said Monday that three students are being tested for coronavirus and are in isolation pending the outcome of their results. The school also stepped up its response. The school postponed a March 19 speech by former President Bill Clinton and now requires that all in-person events with 100 attendees or more be postponed, canceled, or offered via digital technology.

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Brown president Christina H. Paxson said officials are trying to balance safety concerns and educational needs.

“Our foremost priority remains protecting the health and safety of all members of the Brown community,” Paxson said in a statement. "At the same time, our hope is to enable students, faculty and staff to continue research, teaching and scholarship to the greatest extent possible.”

Princeton said Monday that all lectures and seminars will be online starting on March 23, after students return from spring break. The university said it will reexamine the situation on April 5.

Vanderbilt University, meanwhile, said that it was "suspending all in-person classes’' and moving to online learning starting March 16 and extending through at least March 30.

The evolving situation has sometimes led to mixed messages and confusion on campuses.

For example, Harvard University last Friday said that it would cancel its annual admitted student weekend and discouraged nonessential events of more than 100 people, but the next day it hosted the Yale-Harvard men’s basketball game in a packed stadium on campus. The decision on the basketball tournament was made by the Ivy League, Harvard officials said.

As anxiety spreads, more area colleges are feeling the pressure to move to online classes.

At Northeastern, students have launched a change.org petition calling on the university to close the Boston campus and start online courses as soon as possible. Nearly 1,600 people have signed the petition.

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NU has instructed faculty to be prepared to teach online and has moved to virtual instruction at its campuses in Seattle and the San Francisco area. But university officials said for its main campus in Boston its policies are in line with public health recommendations, which don’t warrant a suspension of on-site learning.

Boston University parent Alessandra Kellermann said her son, a junior, has returned home to Michigan for spring break, but she worries about his return to campus in a week. He has asthma, and if he gets ill, he may not recover as well as others, she said.

"They need to be more proactive instead of waiting,” Kellermann said. "These are kids who live in close clusters and they’re sharing everything.”

Kellermann also wrote a letter to BU president Bob Brown on Sunday urging him to communicate more with parents about the university’s preventative measures and also to close the campus.

BU has been communicating extensively with students, faculty, and staff about the coronavirus in recent weeks, including plans to move classes online, if necessary, said Colin Riley, a university spokesman.

BU on Monday also sent parents information with links about coronavirus updates, Riley said.

With limited information about coronavirus, how it spreads, and how dangerous it can be, university leaders across the country are weighing the risks to their communities and also looking at other schools to determine the best course of action, Farnsworth said.

While some institutions can quickly move their classes online, others don’t have the technology readily available, he said.

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Colleges also can’t simply shut down campuses, since many have international students who may not be able to fly back to their home countries or domestic students who have nowhere else to go during the school year, he said.

"This is evolving so fast,” Farnsworth said. "This is quite unusual.”




Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.