Coronavirus fears threaten SRJC study abroad program in Florence


Photo by Zane Zinkl

Milan, Italy is the epicenter of the Italian coronavirus outbreak. Milan, where hundreds of cases of coronavirus have been diagnosed, is only 160 miles from Florence and an hour or two by train.

Zane Zinkl, Editor-in-Chief

Santa Rosa Junior College students studying abroad in Florence, Italy learned Tuesday that many of their planned activities, such as museum tours and weekend trips to Venice and Milan, have been cancelled due to increasing concerns over coronavirus in the country.

The rampant spread of coronavirus in Northern Italy threatened to disrupt study abroad programs across the city of Florence, with four major universities, including New York University and Syracuse University, shutting down all study abroad programs indefinitely.

According to the BBC, there are now at least 400 cases in Italy, and there has been a 25% surge in cases in the last 24 hours.

Kerry Loewen, SRJC Study Abroad director and dean of arts and humanities, is monitoring the situation and mapping out potential impacts and contingencies. He said 22 SRJC students are currently in Florence with a total of 91 students from four Northern California colleges in the program.

One of the newly raised fears is that, should the Italian government or the U.S. State Department raise the travel advisory to a level three, an advisory to reconsider travel, the program would need to relocate.

“We’re not really expecting that to happen,” Loewen said of the level three advisory. “As soon as we found out [coronavirus] was in Northern Italy, we started monitoring it. Our biggest concern is student safety.”

According to Loewen, if the advisory was raised to a level three, the program would be moved to another country offered through the American Institute of Foreign Study (AIFS). The goal would be to allow students to complete their academic courses, but in a less dangerous country.

On the subject of refunds, Loewen said that any student who withdraws before a level three advisory situation will not be refunded as per AIFS policy. Students are only one month into the three-month semester. Should they wish to withdraw in the event of a level three advisory, Loewen says they will be reimbursed.

Students are not thrilled about the prospect of returning to the U.S. or relocation, though a few students have reportedly left the program voluntarily without a refund out of coronavirus-related fears.

“I honestly want to stay [in Florence], and if there’s anyway I can put the money I spent here [into the program] into a hostel here then I would do that to stay,” said SRJC student Vienna Thongrasmy, 21, studying abroad in Florence, “I don’t have immune issues, and I’m not old.”

Other AIFS students share her contempt for what they see as the media and governments blowing the situation out of proportion. 

“For people like myself and my fellow students, coronavirus is not a death threat to us, so I’m more upset at the fear-mongering done by the media,” said SRJC student Riley Palmer.

“Despite being highly infectious and hard to contain, many here feel that the dangers of coronavirus remain mainly a fear of a relatively small population of the old and sick. The controls being used by governments such as quarantines and travel cancellations seem to be doing more harm than the casualties they’re trying to prevent,” she said.

Palmer said some students had chosen to return to the United States. 

“Personally, I think that’s cowardly,” she said. “If they force us to go home, that will be a poor choice because the spread of coronavirus is inevitable.”

Many of the students’ plans for travel to Sicily through AIFS, as well as their independent travel throughout Europe on Spring Break, are now influx, with students wondering whether or not they will have to cancel plane tickets and hotel bookings.

“It’s a semester gone to waste,” Thongrasmy said. “It’s annoying, and it’s going to f*ck sh*t up if the semester gets cancelled.”

Palmer said she still plans to travel to Budapest and Prague on Spring Break, and like Thongrasmy, she will opt to stay in Florence and seek reimbursement in the event AIFS relocates the program.

The SRJC policy on bringing students home who may or may not be infected with the coronavirus is not clear at this time. 

According to Loewen, SRJC’s current thinking seems to be that any infected individual returning from Italy into the U.S., whether student or otherwise, “will be handled properly by health authorities.”

Asked if there was a danger in bringing back students who may be infectious, given the low severity of coronavirus and the two-week onset of symptoms, Loewen said, “I don’t have an answer to that.”

Correction: The refund policy for students if the U.S. State Department issues a Level 3 travel warning which advises U.S. citizens to leave Florence, if an alternative European site is not available, is that AIFS would then suspend the program and fly the students home. In this instance they will receive a pro-rata rebate of fees paid to AIFS for the proportion of the program not completed, minus the insurance premium and any costs incurred in flying them home.