By Jonathan Meilaender
When students left for spring break, Coronavirus was a novel disease in China – a danger in Italy, maybe. When they returned, it was a danger here.
Colleges across the nation have been forced to move classes online in the face of this sudden threat. Stanford and the University of Washington have done so thanks to a West-Coast outbreak. Last Monday, Princeton announced it would do the same, as cases in the New York and New Jersey area rise.
A leading concern is the risk posed by extensive travel during spring break. Saint Vincent took steps to mitigate this danger. A Benedictine Leadership Studies trip to Rome was cancelled shortly before departure. The decision, though perhaps inconvenient to students, became necessary as the danger mounted, explained John Smetanka, Vice President for Academic Affairs.
“The College looks to guidance by the CDC and US State Department. During that week the CDC increased the travel advisory to Italy,” he said. “Subsequently the CDC continued to increase the advisory for Italy and by mid-week of Spring Break issued a do not travel warning. The cancellation of the trip was clearly the prudent decision both at the time and in hindsight.”
The decision was made by president Fr. Paul Taylor himself after careful consultation, Smetanka said. “A group of College administrators have been meeting regularly to monitor the Coronavirus situation,” he explained.
Not all expenses could be reimbursed to the students going.
“Some of the costs of the Rome trip were not fully refundable. We expect travelers will receive a voucher for airfare minus a change fee. We are also expecting a partial refund for some of the travel expenses that could be recovered,” Smetanka said.
Some students received a substitute, though. Professor of Philosophy Dr. Michael Krom was slated to help lead the Rome trip. When it was cancelled, he took a handful of students to Georgia instead. They toured Charleston and Savannah.
“We stopped at Monticello and a couple Civil War Battlefields,” said Paul Weisser, a senior politics and philosophy major who accompanied Krom to Georgia.
"As a precaution, Saint Vincent faculty are evaluating their readiness to move courses on-line in the unlikely event that we would need to cancel classes for an extended period of time." - John Smetanka
Other trips went on as planned. Some groups did travel to areas with confirmed cases of COVID-19; Israel, for example, had 39 cases as of March 9, according to data from Johns Hopkins. But none of these areas had CDC travel warnings.
“We are not aware of a student or faculty member who traveled to a region with a CDC travel warning. All members of the Saint Vincent community are required to notify the College if they have traveled or are planning to travel to these areas,” Smetanka said.
Anyone who does travel or has travelled to such a region will be asked to self-isolate, Smetanka said. Additionally, all college-related trips from now on must be approved by a member of the SVC president’s cabinet.
Dining Services is also taking precautions to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Self-service food is no longer available; even salads are now made by cafeteria workers. Even silverware requires a request. And orders in the Shack must now be delivered verbally. Hand sanitizer is available in the cafeteria and the dorms.
Large gatherings pose a concern of transmission. In light of this risk, Saint Vincent has decided to cancel Sports Friendship Day, an annual event that pairs disabled community members with SVC students for a day of games and friendship. The event was scheduled for Sunday, March 22.
A pressing concern, of course, is what to do if the Coronavirus continues to spread, and despite these precautions, reaches Saint Vincent or at the surrounding area. Already, 10 people in Pennsylvania have tested positive. Saint Vincent has worked to develop a contingency plan. In an extreme case, it may involve moving classes online, as other colleges have been forced to do.
"We are called to act differently, to act with courage, hospitality, and love of neighbor. We should pray for the speedy recovery of the sick, but also follow the guidance of the experts by practicing good hygiene." - John Smetanka
“That plan relies heavily on CDC as well as state and local health department guidance. This guidance evolves as the situation evolves. The Wellness Center is prepared to offer care to any community member in need. Certainly, schools in heavily impacted areas – now some in the United States – have canceled classes in response to the virus threat. As a precaution, Saint Vincent faculty are evaluating their readiness to move courses on-line in the unlikely event that we would need to cancel classes for an extended period of time,” Smetanka said.
But though the temptation to give in to fear and hysteria may be powerful, Smetanka said, it is one that must be resisted.
“We have seen cases around the globe and even here in the United States of racial profiling and acts against those who look or sound like they may have come from a country in which the virus is communally spreading. We are called to act differently, to act with courage, hospitality, and love of neighbor. We should pray for the speedy recovery of the sick, but also follow the guidance of the experts by practicing good hygiene.”
“Times like these are teachable moments in which our character is formed.”