Coronavirus closures leave international students in limbo

The World
A student carries a box to her dorm at Harvard University

A student carries a box to her dorm at Harvard University, after the school asked its students not to return to campus after Spring Break and said it would move to virtual instruction for graduate and undergraduate classes, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, March 10, 2020.

Brian Snyder/Reuters

Harvard University asked its students on Tuesday not to return to campus after Spring Break and said it would begin moving to virtual instruction for graduate and undergraduate classes amid the coronavirus outbreak. The World Health Organization (WHO) described COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, a pandemic for the first time on Wednesday.

The viral outbreak has led to a spate of cancelations and school closures, and it's causing logistical and financial challenges, especially for the more than 1 million international students enrolled in schools in the US.

Related: Social isolation will help stop coronavirus, says Italian doctor

David Paffenholz is a sophomore at Harvard University. He's heading home to a part of Germany that's been especially hard hit by the virus — and his parents are worried.

"I'm actually from Dusseldorf, which is in the middle of the German virus outbreak. So most of the cases have been centered around North Rhine-Westphalia, which is where I'm from, and they're quite worried and they want me to come home as quickly as possible," Paffenholz said. "But I still have to pack up and figure out my stuff here first."

Paffenholz spoke to The World's Marco Werman about what it's like on campus as the school sends students home.  

Marco Werman: Are you concerned about going to a place in Germany where there is a concentration of these cases?

David Paffenholz: Yes, that is a little bit of a worry. I'm actually more worried about travel and going through airports and flying. Given the proximity of lots of different people, especially around those travel options. But I think once I'm home, I'll feel more safe because I can control who I interact with and how often I leave home.

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Right. And as far as you know, that's still possible. You'll be able to fly into Germany, no problem and get home?

Yeah. So I assume that that won't be a big issue. It might be a bigger issue for those students from countries where the virus outbreak is more prevalent.

Right. I mean, I was going to say, you're relatively lucky compared to many of your peers at Harvard. So what is the situation some of those students find themselves in?

Yeah. So it sounds like some students are going to have to be staying on campus. The college is providing some housing options for them, although I think a lot of things are still unclear [in terms of] who is allowed to stay here.

Related: Is South Korea's approach to containing coronavirus a model? 

And basically, most of the students at Harvard are feeling pretty confident that the university has their back?

Yes, I think the university is really trying to do their best, but there is a lot of resentment about the way it was handled. I think it came as quite a surprise announcement, considering that the measures in place beforehand were a lot softer. So ... I think the only major measure in place was at all events with more than 100 people were strongly discouraged. And then going to making all of us move out as quickly as possible — it was quite a zero to 100 situation there.

What about students who have to navigate the American visa system? I mean, are there students who are worried about going back home because they don't know if they'll be let back into the US?

Yeah, that's especially for international students, about ... whether visas are sustained and what our status is if we're still considered full-time students... I think there's still a lot of questions that especially international students have that are waiting to be answered.

Related: Streets deserted as Italy imposes unprecedented coronavirus lockdown 

As of Sunday, classes for many students at Harvard will be online. What are the challenges that that presents — especially for international students?

Yeah, I think a big thing there is the time zone difference. Personally, I already calculated what time all my classes are going to be. The latest that I have in German time would be around 9 p.m., which isn't too bad. But I have friends that are from countries like Australia, or other regions where the time zone difference is a lot more significant. And for some, like, their classes would be at 5 a.m. or so. And particularly for classes where participation is graded and input is required, that really makes it difficult. And then it's not quite clear what the solutions are going to be.

I'm hearing the activity around you, the students, and it sounds like it feels like it's the end of the year — people getting ready to leave. But it's not the end of the school year. It's not the end of the semester. What is the mood on campus with all of this uncertainty right now?

Yeah, it's a really surreal feeling. I think most people don't really know what to make of it, are packing up their stuff. It's a strange mix between finishing up academics — there's still some midterms running yesterday that weren't canceled. So kind of a stressful situation between figuring out the logistics of getting back, saying goodbye to friends, especially for seniors. This is their last week and the last time they'll be seeing any of their friends on campus and [it's] really, like, a hectic situation at the moment.

Related: Italy, Britain wields economic axes to try to counter coronavirus impact 

That must be pretty hard, especially for the seniors.

Yeah, yeah. The seniors and visiting students, I think, are having a particularly tough time because they'll just be back and won't have the opportunity to return while still enrolled, I assume, at this point.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Reuters contributed to this report. 

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