Universities ‘may have to close’ to prevent spread of coronavirus

Conferences and exchanges curtailed as Covid-19 spreads

March 4, 2020
Northern Italy’s universities have shut for a second week because of a cluster of coronavirus cases in the area
Source: Getty
Northern Italy’s universities have shut for a second week because of a cluster of coronavirus cases in the area

Western universities should be prepared for the possibility that they may need to close their campuses to help limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to experts who have urged institutions to ramp up their contingency planning.

As of the start of this week, more than 88,000 people across 60-plus countries had been infected with coronavirus, while the global death toll from the Covid-19 epidemic had surpassed 3,000.

The number of confirmed cases in Europe rose rapidly over the past week, with Italy being most affected. Universities in northern Italy were closed for a second consecutive week in an effort to contain the virus. All in-class teaching activities – with the exception of courses for doctors in specialist training – have been suspended until 8 March.

Piero Ignazi, professor of political science at the University of Bologna, said the institution had started teaching students online instead, adding that he was “confident that in a few weeks we can go back to the standard classes”.

Academics were still working on campus, and students were able to visit them during office hours, he said.

Scholarly conferences were increasingly affected by the outbreak. The American Physical Society cancelled the world’s largest physics conference, which had been scheduled to take place in Colorado on 2-6 March, because of “rapidly escalating health concerns relating to the spread of the coronavirus disease”.

Meanwhile, guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that higher education institutions should consider postponing or cancelling student foreign exchanges given the spread of the disease. New York University Abu Dhabi suspended all university-funded travel abroad, including for international guests coming to campus, until 15 April.

Some schools in the UK have shut as a result of pupils or staff contracting Covid-19, but the epidemic had not yet affected the opening of universities. Nevertheless, experts said, higher education institutions should be prepared for this scenario. Paul Cosford, medical director for Public Health England, said on 2 March that widespread transmission of coronavirus in the UK was now “highly likely”.

Christl Donnelly, professor of statistical epidemiology at Imperial College London, said “it is possible in some scenarios that some universities might have to close for a time”.

“Universities, like other sectors, would benefit from business continuity planning,” she added. “Such considerations would include both student-facing functions – for example, lecturing, tutorials, dormitory housing [and] examinations – as well as research and administrative functions.”

UK government guidance states that, in most instances, the closure of a university will be “unnecessary” if a case of Covid-19 is confirmed on campus, “but this will be a local decision based on various factors such as establishment size and pupil mixing”.

Mike Barer, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Leicester, who is trialling face masks that could detect whether someone has infectious coronavirus before they display any symptoms, said “if institutions can manage behaviour well, they could potentially get away without closure”.

However, Professor Barer, speaking in a personal capacity, said closures and quarantines would likely slow the spread of the disease and reduce the number of infections that result in hospitalisation.

Even if universities do not close, the coronavirus outbreak is likely to have a substantial impact on enrolment for the next academic year. Many schools remain closed in China, where the outbreak began, while language testing and visa issuing centres – key to applications to Western universities – are also shuttered.

Philip Altbach, founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, said there was “no question that international student enrolments will take a hit, and probably a reasonably significant one, in the coming year”.

“US universities will do their best, by extending deadlines, accommodating as best they can to problems that Chinese students are having [with regard to taking the] SAT and other examinations, and providing assistance. But the impact will be significant and, like the coronavirus itself at this point, [it is] unclear how serious it will be.”

Robin Kaler, associate chancellor for public affairs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the institution was looking at how it would respond if someone on campus were diagnosed with the virus, or if prospective international students could not travel to the university.

“What we’re hoping is that we will identify an innovative solution that will allow our students to continue to stay connected to us,” she said. “There’s a whole range of possible ways you could handle this – everything from saying ‘you’ve been admitted, we’ll see you when you can get here’, to ‘we’re going to try to deliver coursework to you in your home country, in person or online’, or ‘we’ll defer your enrolment to next spring’.”

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Universities ‘may have to close’ to halt coronavirus

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Reader's comments (2)

Can you imagine the financial mayhem if our massively indebted quasi-privatised universities closed for any length of time. Without a huge injection of public money many would never re-open. So our government will insist that open they must stay, at all costs, regardless of the numbers dying.
What happens to the international student’s who don’t have enough money to go anywhere for Spring Break? The university’s are saying don’t come back but they don’t have anywhere else to go. Pretty frightening.

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