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Study abroad trips cancelled amid COVID-19 escalation

Sophie Smith


Willamette’s Office of International Education (OIE) is hurrying to meet traveling students’ needs as the coronavirus disease known as COVID-19 spreads globally. In compliance with University policy, the OIE has sent home two students studying abroad in Italy, canceled a summer program in Japan and now grapples with the uncertainty surrounding the futures of students currently studying in Japan. 

The spread of COVID-19 has become a local issue, with the Statesman Journal reporting that one case of the virus was confirmed in Marion County on March 8, the day after Governor Kate Brown declared a state of emergency in Oregon. As the situation escalates, the OIE and several other University departments are facing the pressure to develop and communicate response plans to the Willamette community.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) and the State Department’s travel advisories inform Willamette’s policies during situations like this one. The CDC uses a three-level warning system to inform travelers of the risks associated with entering a given country. As of March 10, the CDC had designated China, South Korea, Iran and Italy as Level 3 countries, meaning people should “avoid all non-essential travel to this destination.” 

Kris Lou, director of the OIE, said in a March 5 interview that Willamette policy requires all community members, including students and employees, to return from a country that has been given a Level 3 warning. Two students studying abroad in Italy have been directed to leave their programs. Willamette has no other study abroad students in Level 3 countries this semester.

Lou said the students who left Italy are able to finish their coursework remotely and will receive full credit for their classes, which began in January. The students will not return to their on-site programs this semester. Willamette is working with the students’ host institutions to refund portions of their room and board payments.

 Lou said most other schools have adopted similar policies to Willamette’s, adding, “I would be surprised if universities did not pull students out of a Level 3 situation.”

To date, Japan is the only country with a CDC Level 2 travel notice. This notice states that people should “practice enhanced precautions for this destination.” Willamette does not require students in Level 2 countries to return home, but they do give them the option to assess the risk associated with staying and make the choice to stay or leave. Willamette will not send students into a country with a Level 2 advisory. 

Partly for this reason, the OIE has canceled its summer study abroad program, Environmental Studies and Sustainability in Japan. A March 4 email, pictured above, sent from the OIE to students who were planning to go on the program said both concerns about COVID-19 and low enrollment numbers affected the decision to cancel the program. The program requires a minimum of 10 students participate; this year, only four committed.

“We very well may have canceled that for financial reasons,” Lou said of the program. 

No other Willamette summer study abroad program has been canceled. 

This year, there are eight Willamette students in Japan as part of the year-long Japanese Study Program at Tokyo International University (TIU) in Kawagoe. As of March 10, universities in Japan are still open, but their closing is a possibility. In February, the Japanese government asked all kindergarten through 12th grade schools in the country to close.

TIU postponed the start of its spring semester from late March to early April, due to concerns related to COVID-19, and has canceled its commencement ceremony at the end of the semester. 

So far, no Willamette students have left the Japanese Studies Program. If any students choose to return home, or if Japanese regulations or national travel advisories require them to leave, Willamette is prepared to support the students’ academic and financial needs. Since TIU’s spring semester will not have started until over two months after Willamette’s did, Willamette staff and faculty are now devising ways to allow students to receive the credits they need this semester in order to stay on track for graduation, should they leave Japan early. If the students choose to return to campus, Willamette will not require them to pay an entire semester of tuition or room and board costs.

The OIE has been in communication with students currently studying abroad, warning them to think carefully about the potential risks associated with their travel plans. 

“Please heed the advice of the local officials about where to go, what safe behavior is, how to stay healthy. Do not travel to Level 3 areas,” Lou said.

Despite fears about COVID-19, the OIE is preparing for next year’s semester-long study abroad programs like normal. 

“We’re doing business as usual, in terms of preparation for fall,” said Lou. “If, for example, Japan stays Level 2 until next fall, then it will impact those students who want to go next fall, but it’s unlikely. We don’t expect that to be the case.”

Lou noted that because the virus has spread to the U.S., COVID-19 is now both an international and a domestic issue. Now, many University departments in addition to the OIE are creating response plans. He said this semester’s spring break may pose particular challenges to Willamette’s campus, since a large portion of the community will travel during the break. 

“Between today, March 5, and spring break, who knows what areas are going to become Level 2, Level 3? Who knows how bad it will get in Seattle, for example? Who knows?” 

“These are all real, big uncertainties that are looming,” he said. 

Up-to-date information about the virus can be found on the University’s “Coronavirus Updates” webpage. 

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