Michigan universities halt studies abroad during coronavirus scare

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Some Michigan universities are scrambling to contain the risks of an outbreak of coronavirus to students who study abroad, canceling programs and prohibiting travel. 

The University of Michigan, and Michigan State, Central Michigan, Grand Valley State, Michigan Technological, Northern Michigan, Western Michigan and Wayne State universities are among those that have restricted travel for students since Jan. 30, when the U.S. State Department classified China as a level 4 travel advisory, recommending individuals avoiding all travels to the country.

Michigan State University to conduct fall classes online

The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in Wuhan, China, increased to 28,018, by the end of Wednesday, according to the China's National Health Commission. That number reflects an increase of 3,694 cases from Tuesday. There have been more than 550 deaths due to the virus.

There are no confirmed cases in Michigan. However, two of the 12 U.S. cases are linked to college campuses. One diagnosis was confirmed at Arizona State University and another at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, which said the infected student had recently traveled to Wuhan.

For the next eight weeks, MSU is suspending non-essential school-sponsored travel to China including its study aboard program related to concerns over coronavirus.

The university made the announcement to halt programs Tuesday on its International Studies and Programs website, saying MSU will continue to welcome and support students, visitors and scholars from China.

The university said it is monitoring the outbreak that began in China and is asking students and staff to read travel health notices issued by the State Department and MSU's medical and security assistance provider, International SOS.

"Know that while MSU will do its best to assist those unable to enter the U.S., the university must adhere to US government regulations," the statement says. "Be aware that international flights, including those used for personal travel, may be canceled with little notice and re-booking can often be expensive or even impossible."

The University of Michigan said three planned abroad trips to Shanghai and Bejing have been postponed. The university also discouraged personal travel to China.

"Undergraduate students may not proceed with U-M related travel to China, and graduate student may only do so for compelling and extenuating circumstances with an International Travel approved safety plan, which ensures they are aware of the health risks, have developed strategies to stay safe and are prepared to shelter in place should China impose additional travel restrictions," UM said in a statement.

Wayne State's study abroad programs to China take place in the spring/summer semester, the school said, and the university is monitoring how the virus spreads in the coming months and will decide whether program restrictions will be put in place, officials said.

Of the six programs that Western Michigan offers in China, two are exchange programs with other universities: Beijing Language and Culture University and Hong Kong Baptist University.

Western Michigan spokesman Tony Proudfoot said the university has already canceled two summer abroad courses scheduled to depart in May and June to Beijing, Hohhot and Shenyang.

The two courses, Education and Health in China and Engineering in China, were canceled "because they don't have enough students who want to go now," Proudfoot said.

"We felt that early May is too soon," Proudfoot said, referring to gauging by then the virus' spread. "This is also the class that had low enrollment due to being early in the registration period, and we felt the pandemic would continue to suppress interest. The Engineering in China (class) is located in Chengdu, which is too close to Wuhan."

Western's Language and Culture course in China does not begin until August and will be offered 700 miles from Wuhan, where the virus is said to have started. Officials say they will decide in the next two weeks whether to cancel the course based on what develops with the disease.

In Marquette, Northern Michigan University has canceled two trips, a faculty-led study abroad program and internships to China in the summer.

Kristi Evans said the cancellation has affected her son, Jared Evans, a senior international studies major at the university.

"He was supposed to head to China for his internship, where he was supposed to teach English in China from May to November, but now he's looking everywhere to find a plan B," said Evans, who works at the university. "For his major, he needs international travel and internship and although the school they had it set up in China is relatively far from the center, it's obviously too difficult to make it happen. He'll just have to take a five-year route (to graduation) if he can't find another option."

Grand Valley State University canceled winter semester travels for one student who planned to travel this month to East China Normal University, located just outside the Shanghai city center. Officials have not yet decided on fall programs that require students todepart in September. 

The universities are following the lead of other institutions across the world that host Chinese students that are reconsidering academic-related travel to and from China. The scare threatens to cause lasting damage to growing academic exchange programs that reached new heights over the last decade and a half, experts said, according to the Associated Press.

China sends far more students to the United States than any other country, more than 369,000 in the last academic year, according to the Institute of International Education. The U.S. typically sends more than 11,000 students to China annually. Lately, the relationship has been strained by visa difficulties, trade conflicts and U.S. concerns about security risks posed by visiting Chinese students.

Many academic collaborations could be rescheduled if the crisis is resolved quickly, but the longer it lasts, the deeper the damage between relationships will be, universities say.

Western said at the moment, "Our partners in China have been very understanding and cooperative. So, we aren’t at risk of damaging any relationships." 

Associated Press contributed.


Twitter: @SarahRahal_

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