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Auburn students abroad return home amid coronavirus concerns

Transmission electron microscopic image of an isolate from the first U.S. case of COVID-19, formerly known as 2019-nCoV. The spherical viral particles, colorized blue, contain cross-section through the viral genome, seen as black dots.
Transmission electron microscopic image of an isolate from the first U.S. case of COVID-19, formerly known as 2019-nCoV. The spherical viral particles, colorized blue, contain cross-section through the viral genome, seen as black dots.

With the number of coronavirus cases increasing globally, some Auburn students are beginning to feel the effects of the outbreak.

As of March 4, there are no reported cases of the coronavirus in Alabama. However, travel restrictions and warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have caused Auburn students to return home from semesters abroad.

Jamie Bass, junior in architecture, was part of a study abroad program in Rome, Italy, this semester but recently had to return to her home in Kingsport, Tennessee. 

“I was studying architecture with about 24 other Auburn students,” Bass said. “I think we were there for right at eight weeks before we got pulled back.”

Bass said she and her classmates had been told by the University to “keep an eye on things” after the virus was found in Italy in late January.

However, since Auburn has now suspended University-funded international travel, it has also recalled all of its students who are currently traveling abroad.

Bass said she received an urgent email from the University around 2 a.m. Central European Standard Time on Saturday, Feb. 29. 

The email informed the students, their parents and emergency contacts that the “U.S. Department of State and the CDC both moved Italy to Level 3.”

According to the CDC, this Level 3 distinction denotes that all nonessential travel to that country should be avoided.

It was also the level of threat that triggered the University’s recall of its students. 

“After we got the email Saturday morning, we just immediately started looking at flights,” Bass said. “I think at least most — if not all — of us were out of Rome by early Monday morning.”

For students who were expecting a spring semester full of coliseums and cappuccinos, this news was a bit frustrating.

“It was pretty stressful,” Bass said. “Not because we were all worried about getting the coronavirus or anything — just having to do that quick turn around and trying to get flights together in a short amount of time wasn’t easy.”

Many of the students already had flights scheduled for the end of the semester, which made returning home easier. However, some students were planning to travel around Europe this summer and had a more difficult time scheduling a flight on such short notice. 

“I know there were at least a couple of students who hadn’t planned on coming home right after the semester was over,” Bass said. “They didn’t have any flight, and they had to just basically pay around $2,000 if not more for a flight to get home.”

Preston Sparks, director of University communication services, said the University plans to work with those students to offset the costs incurred by this change of plans. 

“The Office of International Programs and the Office of Risk Management will be working with individual programs and students on reimbursement,” he said in an email.

As of publication, The New York Times is reporting that over 3,000 people in Italy have tested positively for the virus with over 100 people dying because of it.

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However, none of the reported cases have been near Rome, where the students were. 

Regardless, students who were studying abroad in Italy have been asked by the University to not return to campus for the rest of the semester. 

“The virus hadn’t spread anywhere close to us, but they still knew that we were going to be going through airports and stuff,” Bass said. “So, to make sure that none of us have gotten it or are carrying it and don’t even realize it, they’ve asked us not to come back to the University itself for the rest of the semester.” 

Sparks confirmed to The Plainsman that some of the students coming back from studying abroad are being told not to return to Auburn. 

“Currently, the University is only requiring a self-imposed quarantine for those students traveling from countries designated as a Level 3 by the Centers for Disease Control,” Sparks said. “Those countries are currently China, South Korea, Iran and Italy.”

For the students who suddenly found themselves back home, having only completed half of a semester, questions regarding credit hours and tuition costs are still in the air.

Officials in the Office of International Programs did not respond to a request for an interview.

“I think they’re still trying to get everything organized and figured out exactly how it is going to go,” Bass said.

Despite all the frustration, Bass said she is happy the University recalled them. 

“It really stinks that we’re being sent home early, she said. “But from what I can tell, they’re more worried about us getting stuck in Italy with all of the quarantines or not being [able] to come home at all.”

Collins Keith and Eduardo Medina contributed to this story.

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