Students at Princeton and other schools may have to ‘self-quarantine’ to prevent coronavirus spread, state health officials say

With 11 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S. and 260 under investigation as of Wednesday, universities are ramping up efforts to protect students, faculty and staff from the potentially deadly illness — especially schools that have large populations of students from China.

At Princeton University, where there were 623 students from China last academic year, the school is following a recommendation by the New Jersey Department of Health that students and faculty at K-12 schools and colleges who have recently returned from China “self-quarantine” for two weeks if they’re at moderate or high risk of potentially contracting the illness.

School officials asked about 100 students to get assessed for their risk level at the school’s health center following NJDOH guidance, said Michael Hotchkiss, a university spokesman. “Everyone the university has assessed so far is low risk,” meaning there is no need for them to self-quarantine, Hotchkiss said. “We are in the process of assessing the final students — fewer than five — and expect to be able to clear more today,” he said on Tuesday.

Before classes began this week, the university instructed anyone who had visited China within the past two weeks to “complete this Registration Form so that the University can provide you with assistance.” The university said on the site that “food service will be provided to those students who have chosen to self-isolate and have completed this form.”

More international students come to the U.S. from China than from any other country

That’s just one example of the actions universities are taking in response to coronavirus at a time when more international students come to the U.S. from China than from any other country. In the 2018-2019 academic year, there were more than 369,000 students from China studying at U.S. colleges, according to the Institute of International Education.

With large groups of people sharing living spaces, classrooms, libraries and dining halls, colleges face unique challenges in managing contagious illnesses. “Universities are often the most global and we are often on the front lines of these situations,” said Dr. Sarah Van Orman, the associate vice provost for student health at the University of Southern California. The school has 6,626 students from China, the second-largest population of students from China in the U.S., according to the IIE. 

California, where two coronavirus cases were confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is the state with the biggest share of students from China at its colleges and universities. Some 42.1% of international students studying there, or 161,693 students, are from China, IIE data shows.

USC started monitoring students who visit the university health center for symptoms of coronavirus more than three weeks ago, Van Orman said. The university, she added, “does not make decisions alone” when it comes to isolation, quarantine or activating one of its emergency disease plans. “We are making the decisions with the local authorities and they have jurisdiction over the event.” 

The university health center, she said, has experienced a spike in visits recently. Most of the students who come in fearing they might have contracted coronavirus end up being diagnosed with the flu, which she said is quite common around this time of year. 

Schools are working to keep students informed 

As students returned to campuses after winter break, schools that have large populations of students from China — including New York University, Columbia University, the University of Michigan, and Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. — sent out email alerts to their campus communities. Many provided information regarding the symptoms of coronavirus and precautions to take in the event that an individual experiences or comes into contact with these symptoms. The University of Illinois hosted a public forum on campus about the illness after a student presented at the school’s health center with possible coronavirus symptoms but did not have the illness.

USC posted an update to its coronavirus advisory shortly after the news that an individual had contracted the virus in Los Angeles. The notice assured students that “there is no known connection between the affected individuals and USC.”

Universities are trying to help students with family in China

The university has a responsibility to make sure students or faculty who recently returned from Wuhan — which is believed to be the epicenter of the outbreak — seek out proper care if they experience symptoms of coronavirus, Van Orman said. The school is supposed to report possible cases to local health authorities, she said.

At the same time, the school is working to support students from China with family who are still in Wuhan. “Some students have family in Wuhan and are scared for their families and friends. It is having an impact on students’ studying,” Van Orman said. “We think it is equally as important for us as a community to support them.”

Van Orman said she also worries that people on the USC campus could become overly concerned to the point where they could think, “Oh, I don’t want to sit with someone or go near someone” who they fear could have come in contact with the virus. To help head off that possibility, the school is keeping students up to date on the latest information about the virus with email alerts, she said.

There’s also the question of helping students continue their academic work. NYU, which currently has the highest number of international students in the country, has been in direct contact with students who were unable to return to campus from China because of travel bans, a spokesman said. 

The university has “been engaged in academic planning to help students who couldn’t return to New York because of travel restrictions participate in class,” John Beckman, the senior vice president for public affairs at NYU said. 

The university provided these students with a “‘tool kit’ of recommended technology-based options to allow the student to participate in the class,” and has been in touch with deans of their schools to help faculty implement them, he said.

NYU, has delayed the start of its spring-semester classes at its Shanghai campus, which will be taught remotely using technology beginning Feb. 17. Like USC, the university has sent out several alerts about the virus and has created a pagewhere it regularly posts updates.

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