Officials in full protective gear disinfect Indonesian students upon the arrival at Hang Nadim international airport in Batam, following their evacuation from Wuhan, China, due to the coronavirus outbreak. (photo released by Indonesian Embassy)
Officials in full protective gear disinfect Indonesian students upon the arrival at Hang Nadim international airport in Batam, following their evacuation from Wuhan, China, due to the coronavirus outbreak. (photo released by Indonesian Embassy)

The obvious question about students on study abroad and the coronavirus lurked in the background of many parent chat groups before it finally dropped.

Will students returning from Italy be coming back and living on campus? Will they be tested and quarantined till the results are obtained?

American parents -- mostly on Facebook -- whose college and university children have been studying abroad, have been watching and waiting as the virus made its way around the globe, popping up and multiplying in the second-most favorite destination of study abroad Americans: Italy.

"We understand, and we’re not naïve to the fact that parents are anxious," said Fanta Aw, vice president of campus life and inclusive excellence at American University, which suspended its Italy program late last week. "And we understand where that anxiety may be coming from, especially as we see things unfold.”

Aw said the university is driven by safety and science.

"There are two important factors as an institution making a decision about which programs to suspend and why," Aw said, who came as an undergrad to American University from Mali to study in the U.S. "Health and safety of our students, and in that process we create the least possible disruption of their studies.”

"And to follow the science and guidance of our experts," which includes health experts from the university,  the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization.

American is among several universities with programs in countries where COVID-19 has spread and have begun to bring their students back to the U.S.

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Numerous other schools post frequent updates on their websites and social media about how they are handling virus-related issues, echoing the advice of CDC, WHO and the U.S. State Department. That includes receiving international students back to the U.S. after winter break in January and February. The U.S. hosts nearly 370,000 Chinese students of the more than 1 million international students, according to the Institute for International Education.

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The U.S. still attracts record numbers of international students, but the sticker shock of college tuition and negative political rhetoric are slowing down the robust rate of application seen over the past decade.The U.S. remains the top destination in the world for more than 1 million visiting students — hosting more than double the next country, the United Kingdom. But while 1.5 percent more students studied in the U.S.

U.S. students are also in China (No. 7 most popular), Japan (No. 10) and South Korea (No. 20) where the virus has spread. In China, some international students left for winter break for destinations around the globe before the virus outbreak was widely acknowledged. Some students remain in Wuhan and other parts of China in lockdown for the past month.

An empty street is seen in Wuhan, Hubei province, China January 25, 2020, in this picture obtained from social media. Picture…
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But Italy hosts nearly 37,000 American students, the most of any non-English speaking destination. Only the U.K. bests that amount with more than 39,000 American students.

"For students who are coming back, we are not proceeding with quarantine at this time," Aw said.

"All students returning will be subject to airport screenings and are directed to adhere to CDC guidance. That guidance may change. We continue to monitor," stated an email American University sent to parents Monday.

Health experts have advised that the student population is not a favored target of the virus. Most deaths have been in people 60 and older who have underlying health issues, like heart and respiratory diseases. Four deaths in the U.S. state of Washington occurred in a nursing care facility, according to the Washington State Department of Health.

The virus can be spread through sneezing and coughing, by feces and phlegm, say health experts. Carriers may be asymptomatic for two weeks or more before the virus is apparent. The first case was reported on December 31, 2019, in Wuhan, China, home to a cluster of universities where international students study.  

"We understand that it is a difficult time, and information is coming fast," Aw said. "We are asking folks to remain calm. ... We all know this is developing, we’re keeping our ears to the ground, we have our key resources. At the end of the day, it is about the students.”

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