With five confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S., universities are amping up efforts to protect students, faculty and staff from the potentially deadly illness — especially schools that have large populations of students from China.
More international students come to the U.S. from China than from any other country. In the 2018-2019 academic year, there were more than 369,000 students from China studying at U.S. colleges, according to the Institute of International Education.
With large groups of people sharing living spaces, classrooms, libraries and dining halls, colleges face unique challenges in managing contagious illnesses. “Universities are often the most global and we are often on the front lines of these situations,” said Dr. Sarah Van Orman, associate vice provost for student health at the University of Southern California. The school has 6,626 students from China, the second largest population of students from China in the U.S., according to the IIE.
California, where two of the five cases of coronavirus have been confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control, is the state with the biggest share of students from China at its colleges and universities. Some 42.1% of international students studying there, or 161,693 students, are from China, IIE data shows.
USC started monitoring students who visit the university health center for symptoms of coronavirus more than a week ago, Van Orman said. The university, she added, “does not make decisions alone” when it comes to isolation, quarantine or activating one of its emergency disease plans. “We are making the decisions with the local authorities and they have jurisdiction over the event.”
The university health center, she said, has experienced a spike in visits recently. Most of the students who come in fearing they might have contracted coronavirus end up being diagnosed with the flu, which she said is quite common around this time of year.
Schools are working to keep students informed
As students returned to campuses this month after winter break, schools who have large populations of students from China — including New York University, Columbia University, University of Michigan, and Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. — sent out email alerts to their campus communities. Many provided information regarding the symptoms of coronavirus and precautions to take in the event that an individual experiences or comes into contact with these symptoms. The University of Illinois hosted a public forum on campus about the illness after a student presented at the school’s health center with possible coronavirus symptoms but did not have the illness.
USC posted an update to its coronavirus advisory on Sunday shortly after the news that an individual contracted the virus in Los Angeles. The notice stated that “there is no known connection between the affected individuals and USC.”
Universities are trying to protect students, and help those with family in China
For students or faculty who recently returned from Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus, the university has a responsibility to make sure they seek out proper care if they experience symptoms of coronavirus, Van Orman said. The school is supposed to report possible cases to local health authorities, she said.
At the same time, the school is working to support students from China with family who are still in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. “Some students have family in Wuhan and are scared for their families and friends. It is having an impact on students studying. We think it it is equally as important for us as all as a community to support them,” Van Orman said.
Van Orman said she also worries that people on the USC campus could become overly concerned to the point where they could think, “‘Oh, I don’t want to sit with someone or go near someone’” who they fear could have come in contact with the virus. To help head off that possibility, the school is keeping students up-to-date on the latest information about the virus with email alerts, she said.
There’s also the question of helping students continue their academic work. NYU, which currently has the highest number of international students in the country, has been in direct contact with students who were unable to return to campus this week from China because of travel bans, a spokesman said.
“We are reaching out to faculty who, our records reflect, have students in their classes who may be affected by the travel restrictions, and giving them guidance and options about how they can enable the students who may be stuck in China to participate in the class,” John Beckman, senior vice president for public affairs at NYU, said in a statement.
He said the university provided these students with a “‘tool kit’ of recommended technology-based options to allow the student to participate in the class,” and have been in touch with deans of their schools to help faculty implement them.
NYU, in addition to Duke University, has delayed the start of its spring semester classes at its Shanghai campus. Like USC, the university has sent out several alerts about the virus and has created a page where it regularly posts health updates.
In line with guidance from the CDC and the World Health Organization, NYU has “directly communicated with all the students from affected areas advising them about the symptoms of the illness, and instructing them to go to the health center if they are demonstrating the symptoms,” Becker said.
In recent years, public universities have been pushing for more international student enrollment
The coronavirus outbreak comes as some U.S. campuses have seen significant drops in the rate of students enrolling from China after a decade-long upward trend, creating financial worries for some schools, the Associated Press reported.
About one-third of international students in the U.S. are from China, according to the AP.
Particularly at public colleges, international enrollment has become a critical source of funding as state budgets tighten. Unlike most students from the U.S., these students must pay the full sticker price for their education.
Higher education leaders have warned that the Trump Administration’s foreign policy stance has made the U.S. a less desirable destination for international students to study.
This, they say, helped contribute to a major drop in enrollment of students from China at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2018. To protect against the drop, the college paid $425,000 for an insurance policy that would help cover potential financial losses due to a dip in enrollment from China.
While there have not been any confirmed cases of coronavirus in Michigan, Michigan State University, which has the 25th highest number of international students in the U.S., has kept the university community updated about the virus.
“Out of an abundance of caution, Michigan State University is actively monitoring the developments of the coronavirus to ensure the health, safety and well-being of our students, faculty and staff,” Dan Olsen, deputy spokesman of the university, said in a statement. “At this time, there are no changes to any MSU programs, and there are currently no programs or personnel with registered travel in the affected region in China.”
There have not been any deaths reported in the U.S. from coronavirus. In China, more than 130 people have died from the illness and more than 6,000 people have been infected.