Troy University sophomore Nicholas Gil had been planning a trip to China since September to further his education during spring break.
Those plans ended abruptly, however, when the airlines began canceling flights and colleges and universities across Alabama suspended travel due to the coronavirus spreading around the world.
“I was majorly disappointed,” said Gil, whose canceled trip was part of the Confucius Institute at Troy. Confucius institutes are affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education to teach Americans about Chinese business, education, culture and public interests.
The coronavirus is disrupting the lives of students, faculty members and business people across Alabama as entities race to protect their constituents and prevent the introduction and spread of the virus onto their sites.
Colleges have been suspending travel abroad programs and working to get students back to the U.S., where they’ll have to quarantine themselves for 14 days, while also making preparations in case it’s necessary to cease campus classes and move them online. Even some businesses have suspended travel and turned to telecommunications for conducting business.
Late Sunday, no coronavirus cases had been reported in Alabama, but the state Department of Public Health has warned that the situation has been rapidly evolving. The U.S. has reported more than 550 cases in 35 states with at least 21 deaths. Around the world, 108,000 people have been diagnosed, with more than 3,800 deaths.
The coronavirus emerged in China and is spread from person to person, according to the World Health Organization. When an infected person coughs or exhales droplets from the nose or mouth, the disease can be broadcast. Other people can catch the coronavirus by inhaling the droplets or touching contaminated surfaces. WHO recommends staying more than three feet away from a sick person and washing hands thoroughly.
Patients with the virus have mild to severe respiratory illness with fever, cough and shortness of breath appearing two to 14 days after exposure.
While the virus dashed the spring break travel plans of students and faculty across the state, others are temporarily trapped overseas until they can find a way home. School administrators also worry about broader implications if the disease arrives on their sites and they have to cancel in-person classes.
About six Troy students are still abroad, according to Lance Tatum, senior vice president for academic affairs.
“We have not gotten all of them back yet,” he said.
Tatum mentioned one student who is still in South Korea, but not in a hard-hit area.
“She is showing a lot of composure,” he said.
He confirmed the returning students face quarantine for 14 days by order of the state health department.
Colleges are facing questions about the decisions they have made and are making because of the coronavirus.
Angie Smith, the wife of University of Alabama graduate student Robert Smith, told WIAT she is upset the university required her husband to travel to South Korea and Cambodia despite the risk of the virus. Smith and fellow Master of Business Administration students left the U.S. on Feb. 20.
“The university is doing a good job of keeping this group on the down low and making sure word does not get out that they allowed this trip to continue in spite of the risk,” Angie Smith told WIAT-TV.
When the students left for the trip, South Korea was at the lowest level threat for the coronavirus, according to Chris Bryant, assistant director of the university Office of Media Relations. Cambodia is not subject to any travel advisories for the virus.
Bryant said in an email the students are returning separately, and some chose to extend their stay as tourists in Cambodia and Thailand. When they return, the students will be subject to the health department’s two-week quarantine.
The University of Alabama System has canceled all school-sponsored international travel scheduled to depart in March. The system includes universities at Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Huntsville.
“Regarding future university-sponsored travel outside of the United States beyond March, this is a complex decision that is based on new and evolving information,” the University of Alabama website states. “Decisions on those future programs are on hold and will be addressed as soon as possible.”
Businesses Affected, Too
South Korea, which is second to China in the number of diagnosed coronavirus cases, is a major business partner in Alabama, particularly in the automotive industry. The state is home to 67 Korean-owned companies, according to the Alabama Department of Commerce, including about a dozen suppliers to Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama in Montgomery.
Although Hyundai’s Alabama operations receive some parts from South Korea, the coronavirus has not disrupted production at the Montgomery plant, according to Robert Burns, director of human resources and administration.
Because South Korea is among the countries on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention travel advisories, Burns said no one is traveling to or from the country for the Hyundai plant. He said the facility is using video conferencing and other electronic communication to discuss operations.
“At this point, we are having to take it day by day,” Burns said. “We don’t see any issues, but it can change.”
Hyundai shut down production at an SUV plant in South Korea on Feb. 28 after a worker tested positive for the virus, according to the New York Times. Hyundai production in South Korea has increasingly contracted for parts from China, where the epidemic has hit one of its main suppliers, Kyungshin, according to Reuters.
South Korea has reported about 6,300 coronavirus cases and more than 40 deaths while China has reported more than 80,000 cases and over 2,900 deaths.
Relying on the CDC for Guidance
Colleges, universities and businesses in Alabama are following guidance from the state health department and the CDC, according to public relations representatives.
The CDC recommends people avoid all nonessential travel to China, Iran, South Korea and Italy. The organization recommends that older adults or those who have chronic medical conditions consider postponing travel to Japan, and all travelers should practice precautions in Hong Kong.
The Korea Center at Auburn University is working on plans to carry on operations, which usually include travel back and forth between the United States and South Korea for faculty, interns and students. Fortunately, the center didn’t have any students in South Korea when the virus broke out, said Ellie Lee, coordinator of academic and cultural initiatives. Student travel from the center usually occurs during summer.
“All of our study abroad trips have been canceled,” Lee said.
On Feb. 28, the university canceled travel for 27 faculty members, she said. The center usually welcomes two visiting interns per semester to help with language and cultural studies, and language teachers from South Korea are contracted to stay on the Auburn campus until summer.
“I don’t know if we can get new ones or expand the visas to keep the ones we have,” Lee said of the teachers.
Lee, who has family in South Korea, said she usually travels there twice a year. She said her sister told her the start of elementary school has been canceled there because of the coronavirus.
Springhill College in Mobile had to terminate a study-abroad class that was already underway in Bologna, Italy, and bring eight students home because of the virus. The students are now in quarantine.
“Clearly there was some anxiety over the illness that is in the country right now and having to travel last minute and change your plans, but we just really had to do what was safe,” Springhill spokeswoman Ashley Rains told WPMI-TV.
While the CDC travel advisories are affecting travel to the hardest-hit countries, they also are causing a peripheral effect for travelers. To get to some unaffected countries, travelers must pass through airports of countries that are under the travel advisories.
Tatum said he canceled plans to fly to Vietnam, where Troy has three partner campuses, for an accreditation meeting. Although he said Vietnam had no known active cases of coronavirus at the time, flights to that country usually stop in South Korea or Tokyo, which are part of the CDC warnings.
He said the university formed a task force in mid-January that is meeting daily to discuss immediate and future plans for dealing with the virus. Those plans include what to do when students return from spring break and what the situation may look like in May.
Tatum said most international students don’t travel back home for spring break because of the expense and short time frame. This limits the risk of introducing the coronavirus on campus after the break.
“We have been communicating regularly with our international students to discuss their fears,” he added.
Samford University in Birmingham had no students abroad to the affected countries and no student groups with travel plans to those countries during spring break, according to Sarah Cain, media relations manager.
Still, Samford has suspended all university-sponsored travel to countries on the CDC list.
“The university’s International Travel Advisory Committee will continue to monitor CDC updates and will take additional steps as other countries are added to the list,” according to a university statement. “Please keep in mind that as circumstances change, we may suspend travel to additional countries at any time.”
Samford Provost Michael Hardin told the faculty to develop a plan to continue instruction if classes are canceled due to the potential spread of the coronavirus. He asked the faculty to discuss the plan with students before spring break.
On Friday, the University of Washington became the first university in the U.S. to cancel in-person classes and have students take classes and final exams remotely. A growing number of colleges and universities, including those in Alabama, are assessing similar emergency plans in case they need them.
Realizing international travel during the March spring break is a bust, students such as Gil are optimistic the situation will improve.
With his spring break trip to China canceled, Gil is looking toward summer and plans to study abroad in perhaps Amsterdam or another destination. Those hopes will depend on what happens with a quickly evolving coronavirus situation and hotspots popping up across the U.S. and around the world.
Story was updated at 12:23 a.m., March 9.