Harvard undergraduates on Tuesday were abruptly given five days to leave campus and told to stay home until the end of the semester, an order that drew outrage from students who are also juggling midterm exams, senior projects and daily classes.
The announcement came as universities across the US, including Stanford, Columbia and Princeton, moved to cancel in-person classes and move instruction online amid fears over the new coronavirus, leaving thousands of students scrambling to find their way home while their professors puzzle over how to move weeks of courses to the internet.
Harvard psychology student Silvana Gomez did not know how she would afford to return on such short notice to her family’s home in New Jersey. She is also worried about the risk she could pose to her father, who is 66 and has a health condition that could make him more vulnerable to the virus.
“It’s terrifying. I’m definitely very scared right now about what the next couple days, the next couple weeks look like,” she said. “I have to stay on campus and if Harvard doesn’t allow me to stay on campus, then I really don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Harvard senior Nick Wyville does not know how he will take online courses at his family’s home near Anniston, Alabama. It is a rural area, he said, and the closest internet access is at the county’s only Starbucks, miles from his home.
“We are really panicking right now, and a lot of students have anxiety,” he said. “A lot of us woke up this morning to a very ominous email that’s essentially evicting us from campus.”
Stores were selling out of boxes near Harvard, one of several schools including Amherst College and St John’s University that asked students to move out of student housing and finish their courses for the year from home.
Schools nationwide have announced plans to cancel in-person classes through spring break or beyond amid fears about the virus’ spread. Some are pausing campus classes for a few days or weeks, including Columbia, Princeton and Indiana University, while others are cancelling classes through the end of the term, including Stanford and Harvard.
Dan King, president of the American Association of University Administrators, predicted “many, many more” colleges will move learning online as campuses work to contain the virus and the anxiety around it.
At Amherst College, senior Tommy Mobley said news that classes were moving online for the rest of the semester was met with disappointment and panic as students scrambled to move off campus while wondering whether they would ever return.
“There were just hundreds of students on their phones, there were students crying. You know, a lot of students seemed panicked and a lot of students seemed devastated by the news because, frankly, it’s very shocking. And it’s a major change,” said Mobley, 23, from Newton, Massachusetts.
As professors scramble to prepare online lessons, they have a long list of concerns. Without personal contact, some wonder how they will know if students are falling behind. Some worry students will not take part in online discussions. And there are concerns about how to offer fair exams in an online setting.
At Columbia University, Vincent Racaniello plans to teach his virology class through live video lectures that students can also watch later on YouTube. But he will miss being able to walk around the lecture hall and look students in the eye to gauge if they’re following along.
“The best part of lecturing is the contact,” said Racaniello, a professor of microbiology and immunology.
“I really do enjoy going and talking to the students. Afterward, they come down to ask questions. We walk to the subway together. It’s all part of the educational experience, and that is hard to lose.”
He expects the virus to continue spreading among students anyway.
“Students are still going to be moving around the world, they’re going to be moving around New York City, they’re going to get infected,” he said. “I think it has minimal benefit in the long run and is more disruptive than it’s worth.”
At Harvard, students were told only a number of exceptions would be made for the orders to leave campus, primarily for international students who come from countries that have been hit hardest by the virus. Students were encouraged to raise any issues with housing officials or their faculty deans, said Harvard spokeswoman Rachael Dane.
“We are working individually with them to meet their needs and ensure they are supported in this transition,” Dane said in a statement.
Sophomore Lucy Wickings is requesting to stay on campus during the closure but does not know if she will qualify. Wickings, 19, is homeless and has been saving income from three campus jobs to stay afloat over the summer. Now she fears she will have to use her savings during the closure to cover meals and for travel to stay with a classmate’s family.
“College for me is the place where I’m supposed to be getting stable housing and food,” said Wickings, who is originally from Port Huron, Michigan. “I’m not really sure what to do. I figure I’ll start packing today just in case.”
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