Even before COVID-19 hit the U.S., higher education institutions were managing the implications for both study abroad programs and their home campuses.

When the coronavirus outbreak escalated in China earlier this year, Portland State University had three students studying abroad there. Two returned home, and one – a Chinese national – opted to remain in the country with his family. PSU indefinitely suspended all 18 study abroad programs in China that it offers students, many through program providers. On March 1, PSU leaders brought home four students from an exchange program in South Korea and six from a study abroad program in Italy. All adhered to a 14-day self-imposed quarantine.

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At Duke University, even though the majority of its study abroad programs occur in the fall, the university maintains a robust international presence. One of its flagship endeavors is Duke Kunshan University in China, which offers a Global Learning Semester program and a four-year bachelor’s degree program.

When the coronavirus outbreak locked down the 200-acre campus in Jiangsu province, the university delayed its semester start from Feb. 3 to Feb. 24 and moved all instruction by its 100-plus faculty members to online delivery. In March, Duke also restricted all university-funded travel to any country the CDC assigned Level 2 status and above, as well as all domestic and international non-essential, university-sponsored travel.

Special committees help weigh new considerations

Decisions affecting study abroad programs and international travel are made at the highest levels of university leadership, often among presidents, provosts and boards of trustees, but many universities also have multidisciplinary committees advising leaders.

Duke University has a standing Emergency Steering Committee that considers everything from crowd control at football games to campus drone policies. The Global Education Office is a member of that committee, as well as a recently spun off coronavirus sub-committee that holds calls multiple times per week.

PSU’s Incident Management Team (IMT) regarding COVID-19 includes more than 25 faculty and staff from finance and administration, facilities management, academics, the registrar’s office, enrollment management and other offices. The group focuses on international travel, academics and the operational needs of the campus. Each IMT member reaches out to counterparts in their respective worlds and brings insight back to the IMT. Additionally, several doctors on the team work closely with the local and state health departments.

Managing next steps in international education

How COVID-19 is impacting study abroad safety decisions

Because of the fluidity of COVID-19 and university responses, most colleges and universities are providing frequent updates to information on their websites.

The rapidly-evolving landscape presents unique challenges for preparation and mitigation planning, but following are helpful takeaways for managing the next steps in international education during the time of COVID-19:
Stay calm. With a 24-hour hyped-up news cycle and a barrage of content on social media outlets, it’s easy to get swept up in a doomsday mentality. The coronavirus pandemic deserves careful consideration, but decisions should be made thoughtfully.
Prepare for all possible scenarios. It is important to move away from thinking about if something should happen and instead develop plans for when it happens. With a plan in place, institutions have the ability to move quickly and enact appropriate protocols.
Refer to policies related to other emergencies. Don’t start from scratch with your planning if a similar policy already exists. There may already be policies in place for SARS, MERS, H1NI, Zika and other health issues off of which you can build.
Plan for remote work and instruction. In late February, PSU completed all the necessary paperwork for staff in the Office of International Affairs to work from home. The office also oversees PSU’s intensive English language program, and leaders informed teachers to prepare for remote instruction.
Use all available university resources when making decisions. Consider other university resources. Institutions with access to a medical center likely have pandemic plans in place.
Connect with peers at other institutions and industry organizations. Look to your counterparts at neighboring universities for advice on how they are handling the coronavirus pandemic.
Use office emergency teams to monitor the situation. The Global Education Office at Duke has a standing group called E-5 (Emergency 5) that handles any study abroad-related crisis. The team is now also tasked with monitoring the COVID-19 situation, messaging students with updates, working with host universities and providers on contingency planning and developing academic continuity plans as programs are suspended.

The coronavirus pandemic is a dynamic situation, unlike anything most international education professionals have ever seen. Having the ability to make quick decisions based on new developments unfolding in real time is critical. By approaching the situation collaboratively and iteratively, institutions can build on each decision from an informed perspective and be better positioned to keep students, faculty and staff safe throughout the unfolding crisis.

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About the Author:

Anthony Rotoli is CEO of Terra Dotta.

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