'Chaos' as US universities send students home over coronavirus

Students at Harvard, other universities, outraged after being given short notice to head home as courses move online.

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    A student who suffers from cancer wearing a mask at the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US [Brian Snyder/Reuters]
    A student who suffers from cancer wearing a mask at the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US [Brian Snyder/Reuters]

    Harvard University students were given just five days to pack up, leave the Cambridge, Massachusetts, campus and not come back until the end of the semester, in a move that drew outrage from students who say they have been left scrambling between making travel arrangements, school work and classes.

    The announcement came as universities and colleges across the United States began cancelling in-person teaching and moving to teaching online amid growing fears about the spread of the new coronavirus

    Schools and places of worship nationwide have closed, and concerts, election rallies, sporting events and conferences have been called off in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19, which has infected more than 1,000 people in the US and killed at least 28, according to official counts.

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    Harvard student Tom Osborn said he was "shocked" by the announcement, which was especially devastating for students set to graduate in June.

    "It's almost utter chaos, most are trying to see if they can get extensions on their senior thesis," the 24-year-old student from Kenya told Al Jazeera, "Seniors are distraught, we might not have commencement this year, and we might not see each other for a while."

    The move prompted Harvard students to create an emergency contact list that connects students seeking temporary housing and transportation with those who can provide it. As of Wednesday morning, more than 100 faculty and students offered guest rooms, spare beds, couches and cars.

    Emma Forbes, a second-year student at Harvard, said her parents have a home in Attelboro, Massachusetts, with an unused room in the basement as well as two cars that can be of help.

    Forbes, 21, told Al Jazeera that the Sunday deadline was "not feasible for everyone for various reasons". 

    She added the measure assumes that everyone can afford to go home and has a home to go to in the first place.

    "Many people still have not yet figured out how they are going to go home or where they are going to go, because some people don't have a home to go to," she said. 

    Harvard student mask
    A student who suffers from cancer wearing a mask at the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US [Brian Snyder/Reuters] 

    Other students called on Harvard to offer students greater support and wrote an open letter to the administration that condemned the decision that students leave campus on short notice as it would "exhaust" their resources and put unexpected financial pressure on their families.

    "The nature of financial struggle is one of inaccess," the letter reads. "Being asked to fully move out and ship our rooms away with no system of subsidies and on-campus, accessible storage makes this issue undeniable."

    Harvard University on its main website on Wednesday said that two community members are currently being tested for the virus, and that there are currently no confirmed cases on campus. 

    "Our actions are consistent with the recommendations of leading health officials on how to limit the spread of COVID-19 and are also consistent with similar decisions made by a number of our peer institutions," the university said on Tuesday. "The campus will remain open and operations will continue with appropriate measures to protect the health of the community."

    When contacted for a comment, Jason Newton associate director, Media Relations and Communications at Harvard referred Al Jazeera to the university website saying "it is continuously updated with the latest information and guidance we have to share."

    The university said it knows there "will be extenuating circumstances for students who cannot leave campus by March 23". 

    It added that although students in such cases can remain on campus, their instruction will be remote. 

    Some universities such as Columbia and Princeton have announced that they will cancel in-person classes for a few days or weeks, while Cornell University, Stanford University, Princeton and Yale University among others have said they would be holding remote classes until the end of the semester. 

    Students in Princeton and Stanford have also written letters to their administrations urging them against closing down campuses, and called on their universities to subsidise travel to students who require it, compensate student workers for missed wages and provide storage facilities.  

    The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 which originated in Wuhan, China, a "pandemic", on Wednesday after it infected more than 120,000 people and killed over 4,000 worldwide.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News