COVID-19 Outbreak Terminates Florence Study Abroad Program

Nick Francoeur, Assistant News Editor

Twelve Colgate students enrolled in Syracuse University’s (SU) approved study abroad program to Florence, Italy will return home due to concerns surrounding the first reported case of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus––now known as COVID-19––in Florence on Feb. 25. The students were notified of the program’s suspension on Tuesday, Feb. 5, though the program was intended to conclude on April 30.

This decision was made solely by SU, without any input from Colgate University, according to Associate Director of Off-Campus Study Cas Sowa.

“Colgate had no input on the decision to suspend the program. We [Colgate Office of Off-Campus Study] were told shortly after the students found out that the program had been suspended,” Sowa said.

There were 343 college students in total travelling on the Syracuse program this semester––including the twelve from Colgate. Students in Florence were asked to attend a Q&A session led by the director of Syracuse’s program Sasha Perugini that was oriented around the state of COVID-19 and how it impacted the Syracuse program. With the first reported case of COVID-19 being discovered earlier in the day on Feb. 25 in Florence and New York University deciding to suspend their study abroad program in the city ten hours prior, a growing sense emerged amongst Colgate students and parents that SU Florence had the potential to be suspended.

“Obviously the first thing that both Colgate and Syracuse prioritized were these students’ academics. Colgate does not usually give credit for online classes but due to the disruption that was caused because of the virus, the school made the exception. The last thing we want is for students’ classes to be affected––and that is what Syracuse wanted to immediately address,” Sowa said.

When Junior Ellie Kagel spoke with her mother on the phone the weekend before the program was suspended, Kagel’s mother voiced her concerns about the potential for the program to be suspended. When Kagel was notified that a Q&A session on COVID-19 was being organized by administrators at SU Florence, she did not expect to receive such drastic news.

“[The] Q&A session about the virus but it was so crowded that not everyone could fit in the room initially so I actually left to go run some errands. I got a text from my friend saying they were cancelling and I legitimately thought she was joking. There was only one case in Florence at the time so I figured they would at least suspend classes before fully cancelling the program, but I was quite surprised,” Kagel said.

After hearing the decision, Kagel immediately arranged a flight from Rome to return back to her hometown, New York City.

Junior Griffin Fenady, another student on the program, said he was saddened by the circumstances that resulted in the program’s cancellation but was also frustrated with how SU Florence administrators addressed this situation.

“I was very upset because it was so sudden and I had numerous trips planned that then had to be cancelled. I was in disbelief when they called us outside and told us that we immediately had to evacuate Florence. It was very hard leaving my host family, as we had gotten very close and then I had to say goodbye with only one day’s notice,” Fenady said. “Syracuse did not handle it in an organized manner, rather I found it to be very disorganized and non transparent. My professors who worked for Syracuse were very kind and disappointed on the students’ behalf, but the Syracuse administration did not handle the situation in a good manner in my opinion.”

Junior Owen Lieber understood Syracuse’s decision to suspend its Florence program and appreciated the caution the university took.

“The 2019 Novel Coronavirus is a type of flu that we do not know much about or how dangerous it is, but we do know it spreads easily and quickly…Once there was a case of the virus in Florence, Syracuse had the responsibility to protect its students. While it is likely we would have been fine, it is possible that travel restrictions could have been imposed on Florence the city, Italy as a country, or the United States closing its borders. So in the end, I think Syracuse made the safe decision and probably the right decision,” Lieber said.

SU Florence students will resume their studies on March 16 as they have enrolled in online courses that the university is providing. These online courses are identical in professor and course material as it was on the SU Florence campus, just through the virtual interface. Colgate does not typically accept online courses for degree credit––an exception was made for these 12 students who were slated to study in Florence for the spring term. These 12 Colgate students received an email from Sowa on Thursday, Feb. 27 addressing how these online course credits will transfer to the Colgate academic realm.

“You may know that Colgate normally doesn’t accept online transfer credit for subjects taught outside the summer term. However, due to the abrupt disruption to studies in Florence, and that Syracuse University has made it possible for students on the program to continue their current classes in an online format, Colgate will accept these credits in full under these exceptional circumstances upon successful completion of the class,” Sowa wrote to Colgate students in the aforementioned email.

Syracuse University recommends to its students who are studying abroad to utilize a specific travel agency that is based in Syracuse, NY, Advantage Travel. Not all students pursue this option, though, and decide to privately book their travel. Therefore, when students were notified that they were required to evacuate Florence, some students were able to defer to Advantage Travel to organize flights back to the U.S. while others––like Kagel and Lieber––booked flights themselves in order to evacuate.

Beyond the academic complications that arise from SU Florence’s cancellation, there are significant financial implications that have emerged for students in recent weeks. Colgate students who travel on approved programs pay the standard Colgate tuition cost with the select program’s particular built-in costs added to that total sum––these built-in costs vary per program and are determined by the university that organizes the program. Due to SU Florence’s premature suspension, effectively at the midpoint of the semester, the amount students paid for these particular costs (i.e. homestay, travel, etc.) was not proportional to the circumstances that preceded students’ immediate evacuation. Syracuse is offering housing on their New York campus to the 342 students who were evacuated from the university’s Florence campus.

On Mar. 2 Southern Methodist University (SMU) and Clemson University decided to terminate its London study-abroad program due to concerns around COVID-19 in the region. Colgate has numerous study groups and approved programs in which students travel to this city; London is being evaluated at a Level 2 status by the CDC.

Students said they dealt with price inflation of airfare to return home under short notice as as COVID-19 began to spread across the region. According to Sowa, those built-in costs for SU Florence will be reconciled by Syracuse University in the near future.

The degree to which the program’s participants will receive equitable compensation for these unforeseen circumstances that have resulted from the COVID-19 is unknown as of now. Colgate is currently collaborating with Syracuse to address this necessary refinancing, according to President Brian Casey. Refinancing will be facilitated by Syracuse for the program’s 342 students pertaining to homestay fees, difference in flight costs and other abnormally expensive program costs that emerged due to the virus.

SU Florence’s early departure from Italy has raised concerns within the Colgate Office of Off-Campus Study regarding other international programs that could potentially be constrained due to COVID-19. In the 2020 spring term, Colgate sent 240 students on study abroad programs with students in specific regions having the possibility to be impacted by COVID-19––for example, there is a study group currently in Kyoto, Japan.

“[Colgate Office of Off-Campus Study] are even telling our students who are currently abroad in other European regions to defer travel from Italy at this point. The other thing that we are recommending to students––not only in Europe, but other countries as well––is to stay in their countries where they are. If students are travelling, even for a weekend, we do not know how a government is going to react––whether it be the Italian government or other European governing bodies––and potentially implement travel restrictions that could affect students from travelling to their home country or other regions,” Sowa said.

Colgate administration has bolstered its communication with community members, addressing the practical impacts on campus and preventative hygiene measures to mitigate the risk that COVID-19 presents.

Dean of the College Paul McLoughlin sent out a campus-wide email on Feb. 28 and a second on Mar. 2. McLoughlin directed students towards online resources that both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Colgate have developed––one resource, Colgate’s COVID-19 “landing page,” has been noticeably expanded in the past two weeks. Attached in the Mar. 2 email was the CDC’s anti-stigma guidelines and contained information on how Colgate’s Student Health Services and Emergency Operations teams continue to act in accordance to federal instruction; there was no mention of the SU Florence program’s suspension, although both emails were sent out to the Colgate student body after the approved program was cancelled.

As COVID-19 emerges as a global pandemic and develops a presence domestically, Colgate is assembling the necessary administrators and acting in accordance with CDC instructions.

“[Colgate administrators] assembled a large body. There is an emergency body that is now assembled and they are meeting daily. There’s academic folks, financial folks, student life folks, community people, and what we’re doing is, we’re trying to follow the Center for Disease Control guidelines and [Colgate’s COVID-19 emergency group is] meeting every day. I’m glad another [communication] came out. I don’t want to alarm people with communications, but I think silence is actually worse. I suspect we might get to a phase where we see things very regularly, I have no idea where this is going,” Casey said.