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Coronavirus leaves many study abroad students in limbo
06:49 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

For some students in the US, school’s already out for the summer — sort of.

A growing number of colleges and universities around the country are canceling in-person classes and asking students to leave campus as a precaution to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Some, like Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Berea College, have asked students to vacate campus for the rest of the semester. Others, like the University of Washington and The Ohio State University, are moving their classes online for a few weeks while they continue to monitor the situation.

Students move out their dorms at Harvard University on March 12.

The announcements have disrupted higher education in ways that are nearly unprecedented. Students are scrambling to figure out where they’ll go next while instructors are trying to figure out how they can adapt their courses to online instruction.

Here are some of the most common and pressing questions students and parents are seeking answers to. (Note: Each school is responding to the virus differently, and situations on campus are changing rapidly by the day. For specific questions, it’s best to consult with officials at your college or university.)

Will students still receive their degrees?

Answer: Most schools seem flexible.

The coronavirus has disrupted higher education in ways that could potentially affect students’ progress toward their degrees.

Some students were enrolled in study abroad programs that have now been cut short. Others were engaged in fieldwork, internships or clinical rotations that have since been suspended. Such disruptions could put some students below the minimum credit hours required to be a full-time student or affect whether they’re able to gain entry to future courses.

Many colleges and universities that have announced significant changes in response to the virus have acknowledged these concerns, and are handling them according to their specific circumstances. Generally though, they seem to flexible.

Harvard, which has asked undergraduate students to move out by mid-March, said it is working with instructors to offer remote learning opportunities, alternative assessments and extensions.

The University of Washington, which has moved to online classes until March 20, said on its website that its goal is to make sure that “students’ academic work is fairly recognized and that any disruption does not present a disadvantage to their future academic progress.”

Will students and families be refunded for any expenses?

Answer: For the most part, this is up to each individual school.

It seems universities that have asked students to move out for the rest of the semester will likely compensate students and families for room and board expenses that have already been paid.

“We think that our colleges will do the right thing here and accommodate their students appropriately,” said Dan Madzelan, associate vice president for government relations at the American Council on Education.

Sophomore Sadia Demby moves her belongings through Harvard Yard on March 12.

Harvard said that room and board costs will be pro-rated for the rest of the year for students who are vacating their housing, adding that more information on calculating and processing those refunds is still to come.

For families who have been affected by coronavirus that may no longer be able to afford certain costs, financial aid administrators do have the authority to adjust the cost of attendance or a family’s expected contribution, according to guidelines from the Department of Education.

But the department states those decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis, “regardless of how broadly an event may affect its student population.”

What about students who are enrolled in classes that can’t be completed online?

Answer: A number of universities are deferring to instructors on how to handle these instances.

Online courses don’t make sense for every discipline.

Science classes often involve laboratory components. Performing arts classes typically require activities that can’t be completed at home. Physical education classes would be rendered obsolete.

Georgetown University, which has moved all classes online until further notice, told students that faculty members will be in touch about any adjustments.

At the University of Washington, professors could consider alternative options, including submitting grades based on work conducted up to this point.

Will students who were asked to move out on short notice get financial assistance?

Answer: In some cases, yes.

Some schools have asked undergraduate students to move off campus within a matter of days, posing a financial burden for many students.

For those who need help paying for the bus, plane or train tickets home, Harvard is directing students on financial aid to contact its financial aid office. The school’s financial aid officers have told students on social media that they’re working with people individually to help them afford travel home.

Harvard student Carrington Walsh said on CNN that aid officers have been swiping a credit card in the dining hall to buy flights for people who can’t afford the trip home.

Harvard and MIT alumni are crowdsourcing to help house low-income students or store their belongings.

What should students who need to stay on campus do?

Answer: In many cases, schools are accommodating them.

Some students who have been asked to move off campus may not have another place to go. Others students may be from countries where the coronavirus outbreak is much worse or subject to travel restrictions that would prevent them from returning home.

Berea College in Kentucky, which has asked students to leave campus by Friday, said that anyone who needs to stay should complete a form for approval.

Cornell University is asking students to leave campus when spring break starts and finish the rest of the semster online.

Cornell University, which asked students to not to return from their spring break, said that it would honor exemptions.

Smith College, a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts, said it would provide room and board for those who have no other options.

Will dining halls still be open for those still on campus?

Answer: At many of these schools, they will remain open, although some will have reduced hours.

Rutgers University, which has encouraged students to remain off-campus until April 3, said that dining halls and other university facilities will still be open for those who can’t leave campus, “but services will be very limited.”

Indiana University, which will move classes online for two weeks after its spring break, is strongly encouraging students to stay off-campus until at least April 6. But food service will continue to be regularly offered during the time that classes are remote.

Can students in work-study programs still get paid?

Answer: Yes.

Students enrolled in federal work-study programs at campuses that have closed due to coronavirus, or whose employers have shut down, can continue to collect their paychecks from those institutions, according to Department of Education guidelines.

That rule applies if the campus closed after the term began, if the institution is continuing to pay other employees like faculty and staff and if it “continues to meet its institutional wage share requirement.”

Graduate students who are paid federal work-study wages on salary can still be paid if the university is also paying faculty and staff.

“So in practice, (the federal work-study program) is basically turning into a grant program, for at least this last portion of this semester,” Madzelan told CNN.

Berea College, where every student works a job on campus, announced that all students will be paid for their positions through the end of the semester, even if they are off campus and aren’t able to actually work.

For international students, will visa status be affected if they take multiple classes online?

Answer: Most likely not.

The move to remote learning has many international students who are in the country on student visas concerned.

Typically, students on F-1 visas can only have one online or distance learning class count toward their degrees per semester. ESL students or those on M-1 visas cannot count any remote classes toward their degrees.

But the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, which is run by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said it recognizes that these are special circumstances.

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the program is allowing schools to adapt their procedures around student visas, including temporarily lifting restrictions on distance learning. Schools are required to notify the program about any adaptations within 10 days.

“SEVP is focused on ensuring that nonimmigrant students are able to continue to make normal progress in a full course of study as required by federal regulations,” Carissa Cutrell, acting deputy press secretary for ICE public affairs, said in a statement to CNN.

How does this affect campus tours and admitted student weekends?

Answer: Prospective college visits at many schools are being canceled or postponed for the time being.

Harvard, Yale University, Brown University, Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania are among schools that have canceled their admitted students weekends.

Florida State University is among the schools that have canceled upcoming admissions events and campus tours.

The University of Florida and Florida State University have both canceled upcoming on-campus tours and events as a precaution. The University of Florida has suspended visits from March 13 to 27, while Florida State University has suspended sessions from March 16 to April 5.

Syracuse University is recommending that prospective students register for campus visits after March 30, given that the school is implementing social distancing protocols and limiting events to no more than 50 individuals until at least the end of the month.