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Brown, RISD respond to growing coronavirus concerns

University students abroad sent home, RISD students return, international travel restricted

The University and the Rhode Island School of Design recently unveiled new immediate and long-term policies concerning the coronavirus outbreak, according to interviews, emails and a town hall hosted by RISD administrators. The institutions offered different responses to students returning from affected countries and for students’ future international travel plans.

After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention instituted a recommendation to avoid all nonessential travel to Italy, RISD canceled its “RISD in Rome” European Honors Program, Jaime Marland, senior director of public relations, wrote in an email to The Herald. The University also canceled  its Italian study abroad program, Brown in Bologna, last week, The Herald previously reported.

At the time of publication, Rhode Island has reported two cases of coronavirus, both from Rhode Islanders returning from Italy, The Herald previously reported. The Providence Journal also reported that the Centers for Disease Control has confirmed one of the cases.

Returning Students

The University and RISD both received guidance from the CDC and the Rhode Island Department of Health regarding students returning from Italy, a country with widespread community transmission of coronavirus. Rather than suggesting quarantines, both agencies recommended a social distancing period or self-monitoring for students returning from affected areas, according to administrators from both institutions. Brown and RISD have interpreted these recommendations differently, corresponding to their perceived needs, said Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy Russell Carey ’91. Carey also chairs the University’s core crisis team.

The six University students returning from Brown in Bologna are being directed to their homes to self-monitor,  said Shankar Prasad, deputy provost for Global Engagement & Strategic Initiatives. According to an email from Kendall Brostuen, director of international programs and associate dean of the college, students returning from “study abroad in a country with widespread transmission … cannot return to nor visit campus at this time.” But Prasad said students are “not being guided to self-quarantine at this time.”

These students may complete the semester online through the University of Bologna since there is no “academic reason to be back on campus,” Prasad said. The Dean of the College and the Office of International Programs have hosted virtual meetings with all six students to “sequence out basically the rest of their academic plan as we would with any study abroad student,” Prasad added.

After also suspending their program in Italy, RISD is allowing students to return to campus. But RISD officials requested that students keep a distance from others and do not attend public events, gatherings or classes “out of an abundance of caution,” Marland wrote in an email to The Herald.  This voluntary social distancing period should last 14 days, and “mirrored the process for our students returning from China in early February,” said Kristin Gianelis, administrative director of health services at RISD in a town hall meeting March 4. RISD students originally returned from the European Honors Program site in Rome on Feb. 29. Following the announcement of the program’s cancellation, other students organized a petition urging administrators to mandate preventative measures, including medical inspections and a quarantine-like period for students returning from Italy. The petition was signed by at least 60 students.

“It doesn’t make sense to not have a quarantine for people who are coming back from Italy, which had so many cases (of coronavirus) already,” said Maggie Guo, a senior at RISD who signed the petition. Guo had previously decided to self-quarantine for 14 days following winter break, which she spent at her home in Beijing. RISD did not contact Guo about social distancing until three days after her return, which aligned with new CDC guidelines, she said. “I thought that it was ridiculous that the school didn’t think of having (preventative measures) in the first place.”

In the social distancing periods for students returning from both China and Italy, students were asked to reside further away from RISD’s main campus and were provided food, Guo said. During her self-quarantine, Guo stayed in Charles Landing — a RISD dorm, “but way off campus” — and RISD dining services brought her food.

Still, Guo expressed concern about the level of contact she experienced during herself-quarantine. “In my situation, I was also allowed to go outside without a mask on — like when the dining staff gave me food, no one had any protective measures — so that was really high risk,” Guo said. Guo was allowed to leave Charles Landing and return to her room to get bedding supplies. “That could have affected the whole building.”

RISD is also providing lodging and food for students returning from Italy at a downtown Providence hotel, Guo said.

RISD “students did not travel to any area in which (coronavirus) was reported and none have exhibited any symptoms,” Marland added. “RISD’s and Brown’s programs were held in different parts of Italy, with varying levels of exposure risk.” Because different institutions have different academic calendars and cycles, Carey speculated that there is room for a difference in academic priorities.

“We have been in constant communication with RISD, sharing all the information that we’ve been distributing to the Brown community and they’ve been doing the same with us,” Carey added.

Future Travel

The University has suspended all University-sponsored travel to China, Iran, Italy and South Korea for a for-credit, non-credit or research-related program, according to the University’s coronavirus webpage. Faculty and staff are also not permitted to travel to these locations without prior authorization from the Office of the Provost.

On March 4, the Office of International Programs notified students who applied to study abroad this summer that Brown’s World Cinema Program in Bologna had been canceled. The email also stated that summer study abroad in China, South Korea and Italy would be canceled, “in accordance with the University’s International Travel policy” and “based on CDC and U.S. State Department elevated travel advisories related to (coronavirus).”

On March 5, RISD “suspended all RISD-sponsored international travel, for faculty, staff and students, for the rest of the spring semester,” wrote David Proulx, RISD’s senior vice president for finance and administration, in an email to the RISD community. “RISD-sponsored domestic travel is still permitted at this time, with caution and consideration of CDC guidelines.”

The University and RISD both discouraged international travel for personal reasons, warning community members of the risk of potential quarantine requirements or flight cancellations.

Both schools’ administrators emphasized that they are in close contact with governmental agencies to monitor the situation. “The fact that there are some cases in Rhode Island has certainly raised anxiety levels,” Carey said. “While we’re certainly concerned about this, we also think a calm approach is warranted, and we have no evidence to think otherwise. There will likely be more cases in this country, potentially in our area as well, but a calm approach and following the medical professional guidance is going to continue to be important.”

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