By Theresa Whitfield
Over the course of this past week, Catholic University has made the decision to shut down all of its international programs in response to the outbreak of COVID-19 in multiple countries. The programs currently affected by this decision are all international study abroad programs and all planned international spring break trips.
The first program that the university decided to close was its campus in Rome, Italy. This decision was made on Sunday, March 1. Currently, Italy is facing one of the largest outbreaks of the virus in the world with more than 3,000 cases of infected people, according to BBC News. In the email sent to the approximately 30 students studying abroad in Rome, the Dean of Arts and Sciences, Aaron Dominguez, explained that while the outbreak in Italy is largely removed from the Rome campus, the decision was made “out of an abundance of caution and with the safety of [the] students as our priority.”
According to the email, the students will be compensated for their flights returning home at the “lowest cost reasonable.” Their flights must leave from Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino airport and arrive in the U.S. or the student’s home country by Sunday, March 8. Students will finish the remainder of their courses online and will be allowed to return to campus if they desire, however they will only be allowed to return after spending a two week incubation period in their home states. Furthermore, in order to be on campus, they will need to provide a letter of clearance from their healthcare provider and send it to Catholic University Health Services beforehand.
After this initial announcement, students on campus worried as to whether or not their programs, such as spring break trips, would be affected. They were not kept waiting for long as a second email was sent out on the night of Monday, March 2. After a guidance issue put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Monday morning advised “institutes of higher education to consider postponing or canceling upcoming student foreign exchange programs,” Catholic University leadership decided to cancel all international spring break trips. The trips affected include both service trips, such as the immersion trips, and academic trips, such as the Honors’ Program trip to Greece.
Junior finance major Jessica McCarthy was devastated when her immersion trip to Jamaica was cancelled. The group spent five months preparing for their trip, only for it to be shut down five days before departing.
“I am heartbroken that I can’t go back to the community I love so much but I know the university had to make this call for our safety and for theirs,” McCarthy said.
The decision to send all of the academic programs abroad back to the United States was not an easy one and was deliberated carefully. The students abroad in Rome received daily updates on the outbreak and on any travel restrictions from the Catholic U Rome campus and received updates and precautions from the US Embassy as well, according to Kim McGroary, a civil engineering and architecture dual degree junior.
“In terms of hearing from the University in D.C., Grace Schneider reached out to us once through email, and then we got the official notice a few days later from President Garvey,” McGroary said.
Students across campus were also saddened to hear about the cancellation of their trips. It was also especially frustrating for many, as difficulties refunding plane tickets this close to their scheduled departures has proven to be a challenge.
Sophomore Spanish for international service major Lizetthe Moreno has called the airline she booked her flight to Greece with on seven separate occasions to beg for a refund, but to no avail.
“It’s really frustrating because this was the first time I was able to completely pay for something on my own, and it was an experience I have been looking forward to since last year,” Moreno said. “Now I won’t be able to go home because I lost so much money and I can’t afford to spend more on a plane ticket.”
Following these announcements, on Tuesday morning, President Garvey sent out an email to the university community stating that the school will “bring home all students currently studying abroad.” The university has overseas programs open to students in over 40 countries.
In the Comillas program in Madrid, Spain, Catholic University is the only school that has decided to send its students back to the states, so it was a surprise to the students there that they would have to return home earlier than expected.
“I never imagined I would have to leave Madrid two and a half months early,” said junior marketing major Chelsea Meyer. “I’m devastated to leave Spain because of the coronavirus and having to finish my classes online at home for the rest of the semester.”
Besides Catholic University, other colleges and universities across the country have also decided to shut down their overseas programs. In D.C., George Washington University, Howard University, Georgetown University, and Gallaudet University have all either issued warnings or placed bans on members of their respective communities traveling to foreign countries over spring break or currently studying abroad.
These universities, with an exception to Georgetown University and George Washington University, have only placed direct restrictions on countries designated by the CDC as “Level 3 – Avoid Non Essential Travel.” Countries currently designated as level three include China, Iran, South Korea, and Italy, according to the CDC’s website. As of now, Catholic University is the only one of these D.C. schools to cancel all international spring break trips and bring home all students currently studying abroad.