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University-sponsored international spring break travel cancelled over growing coronavirus concerns

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By Rachel Carlton     3/4/20 12:14am

The Rice Crisis Management Team announced on Tuesday morning that all university-sponsored international spring break travel and any other official international travel would be suspended due to the concern over COVID-19, colloquially known as coronavirus. 

“We wanted to have a general policy that said … our most important thing is the safety of our students,” Kevin Kirby, vice president for administration, said. “So it was an easy decision to say no international travel.”

Domestic spring break trips — including Alternative Spring Breaks — as well as domestic and international summer programs are not currently subject to the suspension, according to Caroline Quenemoen, associate dean of undergraduates and director of inquiry-based learning. 



Kirby said that the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t yet provided guidance regarding domestic travel.

“If we ever got to that point [of highly restricted domestic travel], our country’s in trouble,” Kirby said. “We’re not contemplating that at all for anything. We expect normal operations until something gets dramatically worse.”

Quenemoen said in an email to Center for Civic Leadership-affiliated students that international travel through the CCL for the upcoming summer will proceed as planned, barring any further expansion to the university’s travel ban. 

Longer-term plans for summer and next fall are in the works, but Kirby said that the administration has been focusing on the current semester.

“We’re making plans for a whole bunch of eventualities,” Kirby said. “What happens if around graduation … it seems unwise to have a mass gathering? Or even now, we know people from China or Italy won’t be able to come and see … their child graduate. Could we do it virtually?”

According to Beata Loch, director of the study abroad office, the suspension of international travel does not affect students who are currently overseas.

“For now, the most prudent decision is to advise students to stay on their programs, where they can be best supported as needed,” Loch said. “We have received assurances from all of our overseas partners regarding health notices shared with their student population, the implementation of precautionary measures and close monitoring of the local situations.”

Some students have seen changes in their international plans. Jennifer Fu, a Duncan College senior, said that Fulbright China suspended her program based out of Wuhan University indefinitely.

“There was a monthlong window in February when I didn’t know if the program would get completely canceled for 2020-21,” Fu said. “[It] was really stressful because I began the application process in July 2019 and have gone through several hurdles to get to the semifinalist stage. It’s a strain on time for something that might not even happen.”

And Lorraine Singleton, a Jones College junior, said that the possibility of her going to Italy this fall is shrinking.

“The whole situation is very stressful, as I have planned to study abroad since freshman year,” Singleton said.  “I am unsure of how to fill some major requirements because I could only get some classes abroad. Right now, I’m just trying to have a lot of backup plans.”

The message on Tuesday followed three prior alerts from Feb. 28, Feb. 29, and March 1, respectively, updating the Rice community about travel ban changes as well as a suspected coronavirus case of a Rice staff member. 

On March 1, the Crisis Management Advisory Committee clarified that the individual had contact with a possible positive case of the coronavirus, but that the individual’s contact with the Rice campus was limited. The individual in question had contact with 17 people, who have been recommended to self-quarantine. The test results regarding the individual’s health status will return later this week, according to the latest alert.

Some non-undergraduate students have taken issue with communications from the university. Maryam Elizondo (Brown College '19), a full-time research scientist, said that the alerts regarding the Rice employee’s self-quarantine were not inclusive of graduate students. 

“[Crisis Management] said that the person who may be affected did not come into contact with the undergraduate students or go into any residential college,” Elizondo said. “They said this with the intention that the student body was not affected, but the student body also includes about 3,000 graduate students. They also didn’t disclose where this person did have contact, which may include the [Biosciences Research Collaborative] or lab spaces which the [graduate] students frequent.”  

Elizondo said that the university statement didn’t acknowledge that the graduate student population was at risk. 

“It’s like being concerned about something and believing that your employer doesn’t care about it at all,” Elizondo said.  “I think that even though it’s important to protect the identity of the person involved, I also think that they shouldn’t just brush the feelings of graduate students under the rug.”

Undergraduate student Tomás Jonsson said that he thought the administration has done a pretty good job at updating students, but that the alerts have left out some information.

“When news first broke of the possible case, I was concerned that the [administration hadn't provided [information] on which residential colleges or buildings were affected,” Jonsson, a Will Rice sophomore, said. “After the most recent message, those concerns were mostly assuaged, [but] it might be beneficial for Rice students to know what that country was in case they have friends or family there, or if they are thinking of studying abroad.”



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