New York University student Hector Medrano, of Los Angeles, checks in for his flight using a touchscreen Saturday, March 14, 2020, at jetBlue's terminal in John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
New York University student Hector Medrano, of Los Angeles, checks in for his flight using a touchscreen Saturday, March 14, 2020, at jetBlue's terminal in John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

Parents, students and universities are scrambling across the United States and abroad as schools cancel classes and send students packing because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students are being told to move back home as soon as possible in the U.S. and internationally. Some are being told to take their belongings with them and leave their rooms empty.

“Everyone is in a panic,” said a staff worker at an Ivy-League university on the East Coast, who asked to remain anonymous.

The list of closed schools that started as a handful three weeks ago is now dozens long and includes the University of California system, New York University, Columbia University, Penn State University and colleges and universities throughout the country that host the largest numbers of international and study-abroad students. 

Students walk on the San Diego State University campus Thursday, March 12, 2020, in San Diego.

The closing of campuses -- and the moving of classes online -- in the U.S. come shortly after universities shut down their overseas study-abroad programs over the past three weeks, especially in Italy, the No. 2 study-abroad destination of choice for U.S. students after Britain. Italy’s infection rate continues to skyrocket, according to health officials. 

While some students have chosen to stay abroad, many have clamored to get on flights just as airlines cancel international trips and ground planes. Parents try to navigate travel plans from across the ocean. 

One father posted on social media that his daughter had a one-way ticket from Charles de Gaulle International Airport to the United States. And although she arrived three hours early, she couldn’t get on the flight, describing the scene at the airport as “chaos.” The young woman took a train to London and got a flight out of Heathrow. 

Parents in online groups report that some students are returning to the United States without being scanned by health officials for fever or symptoms. They have cited John F. Kennedy, O’Hare and Logan international airports, all major U.S. hubs in New York, Chicago and Boston, respectively. 

On March 16 a student at American University in Washington D.C. tested positive for COVID-19. 

“The student had traveled within the United States and returned to campus before the end of spring break. As soon as the student presented with symptoms and contacted the Student Health Center, we took immediate action to help the student and protect the community,” the university reported. 

“The student was self-isolated in an on-campus room with private bathroom facilities, away from other members of the community, and food and essential personal items were and continue to be delivered.”

For the past four weeks, some students in the U.S. have tested positive for COVID-19, an influenza that emanated from a live-animal market in Wuhan, China, in late December and spread quickly to the nearby population, including university students there. Many Chinese students traveled during winter break inside and outside China. Many of the more than 300,000 Chinese students in the United States returned from China in January after visiting home. 

The fatality rate among young people is lower than for people aged 80 years and older, according to the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The infected can, health officials say, spread the infection with or without symptoms up to 14 days after catching the virus. 

Last week, students in residence halls at American University in Washington D.C. were instructed “to leave campus by Monday, March 23 and return to their permanent addresses for the remainder of the semester,” according to its website. Many schools have suspended classes because of spring break

“We strongly encourage students to depart campus as soon as possible to help reduce the potential risk of transmission or spread of COVID-19. We know this is stressful and challenging for students and their families and can cause financial and other hardships.” 

Parents erupted online over the frenzy and cost of storage and moving. American University relented on an earlier edict that students return from spring break to pack up. Students there and at other universities have been ordered home to shelter in place until the virus runs its course and people can resume group activities. 

“You are insisting that my daughter travel to D.C. where she will be exposed to Coronavirus through travel, eating out and staying at a hotel,” the mother of a sophomore posted online from New York. “Then she will return home to us. If she gets sick engaging in this idiotic endeavor (why does the room need to be empty, nobody is moving in?) she is likely to give it to us, because she is living at home. We will then have an extremely terrifying chance of ending up in an overwhelmed ICU or dead. What possible justification for this could their possibly be?”

Many students will not return to classes this semester and will graduate without ceremony.

"I am actually moving out today. I am about to go to my last in-person lecture before I go to the store to hopefully get more food and hand sanitizer. I am from China so I know how serious COVID-19 can be,” said Mike She, an accounting student at Temple University in Philadelphia, three days ago. “I believe wearing masks is absolutely necessary and Americans should care more about this pandemic than they are right now."

Thomas Zhu contributed to this report.

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