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The University of Melbourne, where several University students were studying abroad: Donaldytong / Wikimedia Commons

The University mandated that all undergraduates studying abroad “return to their permanent residence by March 23” in an email to the affected students on Saturday. The policy shift comes amidst rising concerns about the impact of COVID-19 across the globe and the University’s recent decision to conduct undergraduate classes remotely for the duration of the spring semester.

Citing a declaration from the World Health Organization of COVID-19’s status as a pandemic and heightened alerts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the University is recalling students from Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Kenya, Panama, the Middle East/North Africa region, Singapore, and South Africa. In the email, students with permanent residences in countries designated at a CDC Warning Level 3 for COVID-19 were instructed to reach out directly to the study abroad program.

The message comes just days after the University notified students studying in Europe that they must take identical actions. On Wednesday, the U.S. government announced original restrictions on travel from Europe in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the United States. 

When Samantha Lee ’22 woke up to the news that she would be required to return home from Melbourne, Australia, she was unsurprised.

“The majority of study abroad had already been canceled, so I was sort of expecting it — just not this soon,” said Lee. “The past 24 hours has been a lot of friends also getting the news that they have to go home, and then a lot of panic about ‘How do I change my flight?’ ‘How do I figure out if I can even complete my courses online?’”

While most University students will complete their spring term coursework online, students studying abroad — at programs coordinated by other universities — may encounter difficulty with continuing their work.

“If your host institution or program can coordinate online coursework for the remainder of the term, you will be able to complete your semester remotely from your permanent residence,” read the email to students abroad, cosigned by members of the Office of International Programs, the Study Abroad Program, and Global Safety and Security. “If your host institution cannot offer online courses or a suitable solution for completing coursework, you may need to take a leave of absence from the University for this semester.”

A follow-up message from Director of the Study Abroad Program Gisella Gisolo to students in Australia and New Zealand provided additional clarification on the matter of furthering one’s studies.

“We are optimistic you will have academic options which allow you to complete your semester,” she wrote. “We will be in touch with all of our program partners and universities abroad about course alternatives, but it may be beneficial for you to reach out to your current professors directly.”

Lee is currently in the process of doing just that, between worrying about how she will find a flight from Melbourne to New Jersey. Though she thinks there is a “fairly okay” chance she is able to receive academic credit for this semester, she is currently enrolled in three classes that require an in-person exam in June. Lee said she will likely either have to take a reduced course load or enroll in several entirely-new classes — already three weeks into the semester.

“Right now it looks like I can complete one course remotely, so I have to now enroll in three new courses or else I have to take a leave of absence,” she said. “There’s a lot of pieces to the puzzle that I now have to figure out, and I’ve been given eight days to get home.”

If unable to find new courses, Lee says she will have to return to the University as a sophomore in the spring of 2021 — “the worse case scenario.”

“I refuse to take a year off because of something that isn’t my fault,” she said.

The University Office of Communications did not respond to request for comment by the time of publication on whether students abroad who are unable to find online options to complete their coursework will be required to take an entire year off. 

According to Lee, several University students in Melbourne are still attempting to stay — petitioning to remain despite instructions to return to their permanent residences. 

“I don’t think it’s going to go over well, [...] but I think everyone’s trying as hard as they can to stay considering we’ve been here for a month only,” she added. “We’ve literally only been here for four weeks, so we’re a little bit upset.”

A number of University students in the U.K. and Ireland made a similar request and received a waiver from Johanna Rossi Wagner, a study abroad adviser, requiring them to “voluntarily accept the risks of travel and continued participation” in study abroad — including possible travel restrictions, health screenings, and flight cancellations — if they hope to stay.

This waiver also required students staying in the U.K. or Ireland to “release Princeton University, and its affiliated organizations, trustees, officers, employees, and agents from all financial and personal liability for injury, illness, death, monetary loss, or property damage” resulting from a decision to continue studying abroad.

Though, this option was permitted prior to the U.K. and Ireland being added to the Trump Administration’s European travel restrictions yesterday. Deputy University Spokesperson Mike Hotchkiss did not offer comment on whether or not the option is still available.

The program-wide email sent to students abroad yesterday also noted that “the University will provide financial support by defraying costs of changing your airline ticket or refunding you the cost of a new ticket.” Such aid will only be approved on the condition that students purchase an economy ticket directly from their current location to their permanent residence.

Students may face quarantine or restriction of movement upon their return, depending both upon their home country and the nation in which they were studying. Those returning to the United States may be subject to such policies for 14 days.

In addition to coordinating with the greater Study Abroad Office, each region is being handled by an advisor. The email offered email addresses as a point of contact for location-specific touch points, with Gisolo offering her phone number to students in Australia and New Zealand and encouraging students to reach out using WhatsApp.

This story is breaking and will be updated as more information becomes available. 

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