Three weeks ago, Pittsburgh-raised college student Drew Klein was sitting in one of the epicenters of the coronavirus pandemic.
Klein, 21, an American University junior studying education policy, arrived for her semester abroad in Rome in January, just as COVID-19 was starting to spread. When not in class, she wrapped her arms around sightseeing adventures in Florence, Pisa and Tuscany — and even further abroad in London and Amsterdam.
Once the U.S. State Department issued a “level three” alert Feb. 28 warning Americans of health and safety concerns in Italy, Klein packed quickly and caught the first flight back to Pittsburgh. Today, John Cabot University, the Italian school where she was studying, remains closed.
“The situation in Italy is very dire now but, when I left, there were no cases in Rome; I felt pretty safe,” said Klein, speaking with the Chronicle at the end of a two-week quarantine in her parents’ Squirrel Hill home. “When I got back to the States, everyone was going crazy. I’m trying to figure out what school’s going to be like now, what life is. My life just got turned upside-down.”
Klein is one of thousands of college students whose semesters were cut short this spring by the coronavirus pandemic. And the rush to go remote or flee college campuses was not contained to Italy, Iran or China —those countries among the hardest hit by the virus. Here in Pittsburgh, universities shifted quickly to virtual instruction and required most on-campus residents to vacate dorms as reports of coronavirus hit Pennsylvania.
On March 20, the University of Pittsburgh further tightened the seal on previous efforts to shut down its campuses. These measures included reducing research-related activities, shuttering academic support facilities such as libraries and computer labs, and consolidating where those students who absolutely needed to stay on campus could live during the shutdown.
“I realize that these changes are significant — and that they limit or eliminate many of the things that we associate with being a university community,” Chancellor Patrick Gallagher told Pitt students in a letter posted online recently.
“However, we face an unprecedented challenge, and we have a responsibility to do everything we can — both as individuals and as an institution — to slow the spread of this pandemic. The stakes couldn’t be higher.”
Pitt recently reported a confirmed case of COVID-19 in one of its residence halls.
Pitt students affected by study abroad cancellations are slated to receive “full reimbursements for travel-related expenses” and “varying levels of refunds” depending on how much of their programs were completed, according to a university spokesperson.
Leaving campus in the wake of the coronavirus scare “felt surreal,” said Tyler Viljaste, a member of Pitt’s class of 2022 and the student government’s community and governmental relations committee chair. “The entire semester felt unfinished. It felt somewhat rushed, but I was reassured by the emails from the school. I was initially worried about room and board costs as well, but the pro rata reimbursement was a relief.”
Pitt told students like Viljaste it would reimburse portions of room-and-board fees for the time they couldn’t spend in the residence halls, he said.
Carnegie Mellon University, which reported its first confirmed coronavirus case in a student March 20, also shifted to virtual instruction. The sick student was being monitored this week by health officials in “an off-campus residence,” according to a school statement.
CMU also faced an uphill task of moving many students off campus. A total of 5,597 international students started the 2019-2020 academic year there, roughly double the 2009 total, according to the school’s Office of International Education.
The implications nationwide remain unclear, though some already are bracing for more than just emotional fallout. The credit rating firm Moody’s March 18 downgraded its outlook for the higher education sector from stable to negative and it anticipates widespread instability in the field. Colleges will face “unprecedented enrollment uncertainty” next fiscal year as the virus continues to tamper with the U.S. economy, officials said.
Nearly 20 million students were slated to start the 2019-2020 academic year at U.S. colleges and universities, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Jewish university students locally have places to turn for support. The Edward and Rose Berman Hillel Jewish University Center in Oakland is offering virtual experiences for students looking to connect over their shared values in turbulent times, said Dan Marcus, the organization’s executive director and CEO.
“We already are seeing the Jewish value of community, which is an essential tenet of our work, playing out in a new way,” Marcus said.
Hillel recently launched a website dedicated to virtual meet-ups and online programming, which can be accessed at www.hilleljuc.org/hillelathome.
Isabella Hammer, a linguistics major who grew up with two younger siblings in Squirrel Hill, was entering the latter part of her freshman year at Brandeis University when coronavirus hit. Her father, a doctor at a Pittsburgh hospital, drove some 10 hours from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts last week to pick her up from her dorm room in Cable Hall, in Brandeis’s North Quad.
Her mother, Robin, was shaken by the news. A friend of Robin Hammer’s lost a parent to SARS about 17 years ago and she quickly cancelled a planned trip to Asia with her 15-year-old daughter when media started reporting on the new coronavirus cases. But she felt a specific heartbreak for Isabella.
“My sense from her and her friends is they’re just really shocked and sad their year is ending so abruptly,” Robin Hammer said. “They’re not prepared to leave each other.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.