Difficult Decisions: Coronavirus forces Canisius to create contingency plans and change study abroad programs

The Griffin spoke with multiple Canisius officials this week who are steering the school through the COVID-19 outbreak. Here is what Canisius students need to know about coronavirus, what the school is planning and what it means for students studying abroad:

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By Mike Pesarchick, Emyle Watkins, Jenna French, Abby Wojcik, Griffin Editors 

The outbreak of novel coronavirus has spread to more than 70 locations internationally since it was first detected in China last December. Now cases of COVID-19, the flu-like disease caused by the virus, have been reported in New York. Canisius released its current plans to keep students and staff healthy this week, but these plans have been on the minds of campus officials since the start of the outbreak. 

“We are balancing our concerns for the health and well-being of our students with our understanding and commitment to their very valuable educational experiences,” President John J. Hurley said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

While the outbreak has begun to touch New York, the college has been preparing to respond since Jan. 27, when the infectious disease response committee was called together. The committee, comprised of representatives from all areas of campus that could be affected by an infectious disease, last met in 2009 about the H1N1 “swine flu” virus. The committee is now meeting biweekly about the coronavirus.

Canisius officials say they must make decisions in real-time because the outbreak is so different from other illnesses people have experienced before. 

STUDENTS SHOULD BE PREPARED, BUT NOT SCARED

As a contingency plan moving forward, if the virus were to get worse by spreading to Buffalo or having an impact on the campus community, the college would consider suspending classes and moving them online to Desire2Learn, or would consider canceling larger scale events. The faculty have been notified of the potential that coursework and lessons may be online. 

The plan is not one set in stone. It is contingent on a variety of factors, which change day by day. 

“I used to coach football and it’s sort of like planning for a game. You’re looking at what’s going on influencing your decision as you get information,” Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Dr. Dan Dentino said.

Canisius officials have been making decisions as time goes on and more information is provided because this virus is different from others experienced before. 

“That’s why we’ve been so communicative to students, because we have an obligation to make sure we’ve been communicating as efficiently as possible with our students,” Dentino said.

Dentino said if students feel sick, their health comes before classes and other responsibilities and urges students or faculty to stay home, and recommends calling the health center at Canisius with any concerns. He said Canisius is monitoring the situation and is trying to provide all the necessary information. In addition, the college is currently extending their resources to be more proactive.

It all comes down to taking precautions and taking care of yourself, Brian Smith, director of the study abroad program said. He recommends that the Canisius community makes sure to wash their hands, don’t touch their face and stay away from those who are displaying symptoms. 

“The health and safety of the students and the staff are the number one priority for the institution,” Dentino said.

Vice President for Business and Finance Marco Benedetti said by living by Canisius’ Jesuit values and thinking of the value of people for and with others, students and faculty should be aware of others around them and the possibility of getting them sick, and he also recommends avoiding unnecessary travel.

TRIPS CANCELED 

“The immediate concern for us was spring break in the middle of March. We have summer trips that are being planned, and for the minute we are not making a decision on those.”

Canisius has canceled all college-sponsored travel to any CDC level three or four countries, including China, Iran, South Korea and Italy.

Canisius has canceled the Travel Photography (FAS142) spring trip to Naples, Italy, because of the outbreak. The country has seen cases of coronavirus skyrocket recently. BNO News, an outlet based in the Netherlands, reported Wednesday that Italy is closing all colleges and universities until the epidemic is over. Canisius has also canceled an Art History and Animals student trip to southern Germany that was scheduled for spring break. 

Because of the Travel Photography trip cancellation, the class is going to be redesigned as Intro to Photography (FAH141), which will be an online course.

“I am absolutely convinced that the administration is looking out for the well being of the students,” Tom Wolf, professor of photography at Canisius, said. “My sadness is for [the students], that you don’t get a chance to experience this. Part of going to college and part of growing up is you’re faced with disappointment and faced with the passing of things.”

STUDY ABROAD CUT SHORT

Students studying abroad received an email from the study abroad office on Feb. 25, where they provided suggestions for safety to students. 

Just three days later, on Feb. 28, students began receiving emails recommending that some of them come home. This included junior political science major Savannah Karcz, who shared the email sent to her with The Griffin.

In light of the spread of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) in Italy, we as an institution are recommending that you return home to the US and complete your coursework remotely from your home.

We are not requiring you to return home – it is your decision whether to remain at LdM or not,” Brian Smith, director of Study Abroad and International Student Programs wrote in the email. 

The email also included information saying that Karcz would be required to pay for her own flight home, regardless of if she is later told she must return home. This is due to the specific travel insurance Karcz purchased. 

Karcz told Griffin editor Emyle Watkins in a phone call that she hadn’t really worried about coming home until last Friday when Italy was bumped to a CDC level three.

“None of my roommates were thinking about leaving at all,” Karcz said, describing the end of last week for herself and her housemates. “The only thing that we were worried about was that we weren’t going to be able to travel to Venice and have fun. And then the next day, two of my roommates got emails saying that they were going to get pulled.” 

Karcz has been studying at the Lorenzo de’ Medici School (LdM) in Florence, a popular study abroad location for students from many different schools. She added that while her friends were told they must come home, it was reiterated to her in emails from study abroad that as a Canisius student, coming home is her choice.

Benedetti said that the college made this decision because it feels students should be able to, on a case-by-case basis, work with the college to make decisions that are best for them and their families. 

“We’ve seen cases where students might be going home to elderly parents or grandparents and so that’s a consideration,” Benedetti said. “That’s why it’s a recommendation in that we want you to be safe, be aware that you’re potentially in an environment where you are potentially going to be exposed. But, is that the worst environment you could be in for you and your family? Each situation is different which is why you can’t have a strict edict.”

Karcz says that ultimately, she ended up buying her own plane ticket home for $500, after working with the Travel Team. She doesn’t have an international calling plan, so her mother had to assist in calling to try and find a flight, but when Karcz was searching for one on her own, many of the flights were coming up $1,000 to $3,000 one way. She says that as cities shut down and the US began placing travel restrictions, she became increasingly worried about her ability to come home. 

Amid her frustrations, Karcz penned a letter to President Hurley and Study Abroad. Here is an excerpt: 

“LdM students received an email from the college that stated those remaining may not be able to use their health insurance effectively and they are now looking into having the students who remain in Florence take their classes online, like the students leaving – however, we were not required to leave, but in this pandemic, how does one choose to stay? Despite the schools no

longer running and no certainty as to when things will return to normal, Canisius still refuses to

take liability and help us get home. 

The most help I’ve received is being told that I needed to give my exact address as to where I will be quarantined for my two weeks upon return, also that if I told them my travel plans and itinerary, they could give the Canadian border a heads up that I will be flying into Toronto and driving back to Hamburg.”

Canisius currently has 25 students studying abroad in countries such as England, Scotland, Italy, Germany and Australia. Out of the 25, Canisius said Tuesday that two have responded to the school stating they will remain abroad. 

While Canisius offered students abroad the choice to stay or come home, students attending SUNY and CUNY schools have not been given the option. Governor Andrew Cuomo told WBEN 930 AM on Wednesday that all SUNY students were being recalled on chartered aircraft. 

Those students, around 300 in number, will be quarantined for 14 days upon their return from Italy, Japan, Iran, South Korea and China. Of those students, eight are from the University at Buffalo, according to a press conference streamed by the UB Spectrum. 

Canisius students who choose to return will be able to complete their coursework at Canisius for the classes they began abroad if the school abroad does not already offer them an online option to do so.  

President Hurley said he did not know what would happen to the costs students have put down for these trips. Dentino said that students abroad should work with Canisius’ travel team to determine if they would pay for travel back to the United States on a “case by case basis.”

As of right now, Karcz has a $4,100 bill from LdM for her housing. Her plan is to refuse to pay it, since she wouldn’t be in Italy for the period she is being billed for. Smith has currently reached out to LdM to work out housing cost refunds for Canisius students, and is awaiting a response. 

Now, Karcz is heading home to a two-week quarantine, a three-week wait for what LdM is telling her will be an online class system, and answers from Canisius and LdM about refunds and costs. 

For Karcz, studying abroad is what drove her to go to Canisius. She says she worked full-time while in school to be able to afford the trip, and because of that, studying abroad really was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

“I would love to be able to study abroad again, but I’ve literally been working the past two years, 70-plus hours a week, over the summer, and full-time job during school to be able to afford to come this time. So, logistically, that’s just not an option for me to come back, unfortunately,” Karcz said.

COVID-19 facts 

Novel (new) coronavirus COVID-19 is a respiratory disease that first emerged in China last December. Its symptoms are flu-like and include fever, chills, shortness of breath, runny nose, sore throat and a headache. The virus has a notably long incubation period of 2-14 days, during which infected persons may show no symptoms, according to the Center for Disease Control.  

Because of this trait, the virus has spread rapidly. On Jan. 30, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus a “public health emergency.” As of Thursday, the CDC reported that 99 cases have been reported in the United States. Of those, 13 people have died. 

The Erie County Department of Health and Governor Cuomo announced Wednesday that there were no positive cases in Erie County. The county tested six individuals after they returned from a trip to Italy. A group of University at Buffalo students back from a trip to China were also tested and were negative. WBEN reported Thursday that 22 cases have been reported in New York.

At least six people are sick with coronavirus in Westchester, WBEN reported. One of the six has been hospitalized, the rest remain quarantined in their home. 

Erie County Comptroller Mark Poloncartz said on Wednesday at a televised press conference that officials would be working with federal agents on containing and preventing the virus. Cases of coronavirus have been reported downstate and 19 cases have been reported in Toronto. 

The Center for Disease Control has authorized local officials to conduct tests for coronavirus without sending them to Albany to be verified. The turnaround time for test results is six hours and testing will begin soon.

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