With dizzying speed, the coronavirus outbreak has come home to American higher education, prompting hundreds of campuses to suspend classes and move to online instruction. Yet, the abrupt announcement Wednesday night of a ban on travelers from continental Europe, followed by restrictions on entry from Britain and Ireland, underscored how the pandemic continues to pose particular challenges for international education.
The top six education-abroad destinations, all in Europe, host nearly half of the 342,000 American college students who study overseas. Even though U.S. citizens are still permitted to travel from Europe, institutions scrambled to get students back home.
“We are through the looking glass now,” Noah Rost, director of the Programs Abroad Office at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, told me.
When we spoke midday Sunday, Rost was still working to help some of his students return — packed flights and reductions in routes have made it slow going. Tennessee provided financial assistance to help students cover the cost of pricey last-minute tickets.
For people outside education abroad, it may seem surprising that large numbers of students remained abroad, even as colleges moved to restrict international travel. But longstanding risk management practices
suggest that students may be safer at overseas universities or program sites, where they are supported by professional staff, than flying home. “The danger is in the act of travel,” Rost said, “not in being abroad.”
Images of passengers over the weekend, stuck in hours-long crushes in customs queues, highlighted these hazards. At airports like O’Hare, it was the opposite of social distancing: