The SARS epidemic in Asia is raising concerns for college administrators here in the United States. Educators are worried that foreign exchange students from countries still battling this infectious disease could pose a serious public health risk on campus.
Officials from at least three prominent universities are discouraging people from attending commencement ceremonies this month, if they live in or have recently visited a country where Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome is running rampant. Administrators from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri? Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio? and the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York? all say they aren't trying to target or discriminate against any particular ethnic group. At the same time, the decision to discourage attendance among people from SARS-affected countries does have a disproportionate impact on Chinese and Chinese-American students. At the University of California at Berkeley, officials have announced they'll be turning away hundreds of summer-term students scheduled to arrive from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
"Our concerns are that we will have more than 500 students arriving within, say, three weeks, and they will be living in the residence halls, where they share bathroom facilities, and they share dining facilities," says Marie Felde, a spokesperson for the university. "If we have to isolate students who come down with a simple respiratory disease, as public health protocols are requiring, we have nowhere to isolate them when they're living in these communal facilities."
Berkeley has managed to set up emergency housing for at least eighty students, should some sort of quarantine become necessary. That means the first eighty students scheduled to arrive on campus from a SARS-affected country will be permitted to attend classes. Marie Felde says all other students will receive refunds, and that the decision to dis-enroll them will end up costing the school about two million dollars. So far, the University of California at Berkeley is the only institution to take the unprecedented step of temporarily barring Chinese students from living on campus and taking classes.
But hundreds of universities around the country have cancelled plans to send American students and faculty to China for the summer term. Joe Wrinn is Director of Communications for Harvard University. He says Harvard is monitoring the health situation in Asia closely. "The only actual program to my knowledge right now that has been cancelled is a group of summer school students going from Harvard to Beijing," he says. "That decision had to be made recently for logistical reasons. But basically, we're trying to hold off as many decisions like that as possible, yet monitor the current health and outbreak situation."
So far, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have not issued any guidelines for colleges and universities, other than the travel advisories being issued to the general public. But the Washington Post reports that CDC Director Julie Gerberding has suggested schools may be overreacting, when they urge people from SARS-affected countries not to attend commencement ceremonies.