Romers in semi-quarantine as Italy’s coronavirus cases rise, administration weighing options

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Photo by Anna Wilgenbush

On Feb. 24, the weekly mandatory meeting on the Rome campus differed from any other in recent memory. The meeting focused on the 2019 novel coronavirus, or COVID-19. 

When the Romers returned from their third long weekend on Sunday, Rome’s Office of Student Affairs took everyone’s temperature and asked them to report where they had traveled to during the past three weekends. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a travel notice stating that high-risk travelers should avoid nonessential travel while others should practice enhanced precautions. 

COVID-19 is an infectious disease transmitted through respiratory droplets and person to person contact. According to the World Health Organization, COVID-19 causes mild illness in most people but can cause illness and death for others.

Students that had gone to Milan in the past three weeks were put into a “semi-quarantine” in which they had to wear masks around campus, eat meals outside and sleep in a separate area. 

About eight students were semi-quarantined. 

Dr. Peter Hatlie, director, dean and vice president of the Rome Campus, prefaced the meeting as an unusual one and apologized for it being “scattered.” 

Hatlie discussed risk assessment, updating students on the number of confirmed cases in Italy over the past 96 hours, which began as three cases on Friday. It grew to 50 to 100 cases between Saturday and Sunday, and, as of Monday evening, was up to 229 cases reported in Northern Italy. 

He explained the decision making factors that would determine the fate of the spring semester, explaining that the Italian, American and Greek governments are all extremely concerned about the spread of COVID-19 and travel of those living in Italy. 

Hatlie gave three different scenarios that the Rome program could possibly follow. The first would be to conduct business as usual.

However, Hatlie explained that this option is no longer possible, given that about five different group trips have been canceled, including Ash Wednesday in Rome, an Art and Architecture visit and a trip to the John Keats house. 

The second option would be to modify the current schedule, either postponing or replacing the upcoming Greece trip, which was scheduled for March 1. The administration is currently working on this option and has promised to give an update concerning the Greece trip on Wednesday.

The third option, according to an email that was sent by Rome Director of Student Affairs Benjamin Gibbs, would be to “cancel the semester and repatriate students.” Although it would be a last resort, “if it is the only way that we can confidently determine that student safety and security are achieved, we need to consider it seriously,” wrote Gibbs.

Hatlie said that the only way he would see this happening is if the cases double or spread into the Lazio region, where the Due Santi campus is located.

If this were the case, students would be partially refunded and would likely continue their classes online. 

“At this point, we are simply monitoring the situation … There are no plans to bring any students home at this time,” wrote Executive Vice President Dr. John Plotts in an email about the situation. 

Resident Coordinator Joe Griesbauer explained that these measures are precautionary and that the Rome campus is acting on the measures being taken by the Italian government and the European Union. 

“We’ll face a lot of challenges,” said Griesbauer. “Even if it’s not too big of a threat due to its moderate symptoms, we’ll face challenges traveling due to borders being closed, boats not being able to enter harbors, or airports potentially being closed.” 

CNN has reported that Italy has been labeled the epicenter for the coronavirus’ outbreak in Europe. Currently, 10 Italian cities have been placed on lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.  

With the Greece trip scheduled for March 1 and ten-day on March 10, a  concern is that students who leave Rome might not be allowed back in if conditions worsen. 

The meeting stirred many emotions in the student body. Some were scared, sad or in denial. Some thought that the administration was overreacting. However, most were upset about the possibility of the semester being over but grateful for the opportunities that the past six weeks on the Rome Campus had brought. 

Bryan Box, a sophomore business major, was grateful for the way that Hatlie and the Rome campus administration had been handling the situation. 

“I think it’s a very big plausibility that they could send us home,” said Box. “It isn’t the best situation because we wouldn’t be in Rome anymore, but we would get to take classes online which would allow us to see our families.” 

“I think the worst thing would be to not have the experience of being in Rome for a full semester. It’s a once in a lifetime experience.” 

“I’m definitely disappointed knowing it’s probably gonna have to end sooner than we were expecting,” said junior theology major Nate Riddle. “Missing opportunities and not being able to travel to different places is definitely sad. But, we also know that we don’t want to risk our lives and our classmates’ lives.” 

Sophomore Thomas Thompson was in semi-quarantine for 24 hours. Thompson visited Milan 11 days ago for about two days. 

He commented that it could become an issue if parents, students and the administration began to become driven by fear. 

“I think we need to be very cautious about overreacting and rationally choosing to abandon hope and reasonable activity in the face of such a situation,” Thompson said. “I think it’s something that can be faced reasonably and with caution, but not at the cost of abandoning the semester, or at the cost of Greece, or at the cost of ten-day, or at the cost of our education.” 

According to Hatlie, students could be sent away from the Rome campus as early as Saturday if the virus were to spread in the area. The campus has stockpiled two week’s worth of food as a precaution.

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