Illustration by Andrea Nebhut
For seven Trinity students, the beginning of this spring was more hectic than expected. Six had traveled to China to begin their studies abroad while one awaited a late start to their semester. By mid-January, each had been unenrolled from their study abroad programs and put into classes at Trinity. The cause of this change in schedule? COVID-19.
COVID-19 is a strain of the coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, and has never before been seen in humans. According to the World Health Organization, the virus has caused more than 1,100 deaths at the time of this publication.
TRINITY STUDENTS ABROAD
Though six of the students were already in China, Trinity responded quickly to the crisis.
The university reached out to students individually and arranged flights back to the States, according to Ivan Pendergast, emergency management coordinator.
“They saw [the virus outbreak] happening, so instead of waiting for when plane tickets were already sold and having that dilemma, I think they made some great decisions in getting those students out as early as possible,” Pendergast said.
Junior Chinese and business analytics and technology major Anna Lund was in China during the outbreak on a study abroad trip. She recalled that the university in Beijing she intended to study at this semester initiated a sort-of quarantine to keep students out of harm’s way.
“Basically everyone was just self-quarantined,” Lund said. “The quarantine on campus was more because everyone in Beijing was self-quarantined, and they did not want students leaving campus and bringing back whatever. It was more of a preventative measure.”
Anthropology and Chinese double major Tryne Vander Straten was also part of a study abroad program in China and said that the days following the news of the outbreak were confusing and stressful. That university was also beginning to quarantine while she was there.
“I did a semi-quarantine, where I would still go shopping for school stuff, and I would go see a couple friends who were in town. It wasn’t completely isolated, I just had to make sure that I don’t have a lot of direct contact with people,” Vander Straten said.
Pendergast has worked alongside Health Services and members of Trinity administration to monitor the progression of the infection.
Vander Straten explained that the Study Abroad Office was helpful, too, and that the students were kept in the loop during their short time in China.
“Every step of the way, I got emails from the Study Abroad Office, I got emails from professors, I got an email from Dean Tuttle. I knew that they were prepared for this type of situation because they had probably been having risk management meetings,” Vander Straten said.
According to Vander Straten, Trinity will help to cover the cost of the trip for those that were pulled from their study abroad programs.
“In terms of reimbursement, Trinity has been working with the program we were on to get our tuition refunded back to Trinity. And the actual program has been working with us to get flights and program fees canceled,” Vander Straten said.
However, reimbursement isn’t the only issue for some students. For sophomore Mackenzie McCord, this spring was one of his only opportunities to study abroad during the regular school year.
“Because you need, I think it’s, like, 20 hours of classes strictly taught in Chinese, and Trinity only offers two or three. So I would have to go abroad again to get my Chinese major,” McCord said. “And there’s no time at this point being a sophomore and being a finance major.”
McCord will need to study abroad during the summer term, which is not covered by financial aid and offers fewer hours, in order to keep his Chinese major.
However, Stephen Field, professor Chinese and an academic adviser to many students in Trinity’s Chinese major explained that the university may not offer study abroad courses to China this summer term, depending on how the infection continues.
“There will be a decision made sometime this month as to whether or not we will cancel our programs in the summer or not,” Field said. “Our hope is the students don’t let this change their minds. Obviously parents are going to be very worried, but I hope parents know that we have their children’s lives at the very top of our concerns. And so we would never because we’re going to be a company then we’re not going to go over there.”
As for enrolling after the add/drop deadline, when most classes are filled or waitlisted, students received help from Stephen Field, who is a professor Chinese and an academic adviser to many of the students.
Field said it was easy to get the students into East Asian studies classes.
“We’ve always worked as hard as we can to get students and once we get them to keep them,” Field said. “You know, a lot of the students that major in Chinese are also majoring in business. And you know, those courses fill up so fast.”
But McCord said that many professors were accommodating.
“I’m still catching up on two weeks worth of classes, but grade-wise they won’t take away from me,” McCord said. “I was able to get into the finance classes I need to be in, even classes that were waitlisted just because they knew our situation.”
Field said the Study Abroad Office was also helpful in getting students in on-campus housing.
“From what from what I understand it was also no problem getting the students in rooms,” Field said. “I would have known I think if a student was dissatisfied because then they’ll come to me and see if I can fix the problem. Never heard of any issues whatsoever.”
While the coronavirus is similar to other viruses in certain respects, part of what makes this illness so dangerous is the fact that it can be transmitted by individuals that do not show symptoms of the disease. This makes it difficult to detect and track the spread of the virus.
“It is like any other upper respiratory infection, so similar to a common cold or the flu,” said Marcy Youngdahl, university physician. “They are finding that this virus can transmit during what’s called an incubation period, when the person feels well and does not show any symptoms, and they can be shedding some of the virus even through their saliva and their mucus at that time.”
The unique infectivity of this virus requires a proactive response, and Trinity, along with the Metropolitan Health Center, has put in place a protocol in case someone were to exhibit symptoms of the disease.
“Coordinator of Health Services Yvette Tercero has been in contact with the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District Epidemiologist who has given instructions/guidance. If a patient presents to clinic or calls in and reports fever/chills/upper respiratory symptoms and has been in Wuhan, China within the past 14 days or has had contact with a person known to have Novel Coronavirus OR is a “Person Under Investigation” for novel coronavirus within the past 14 days, then we contact San Antonio Metropolitan Health District immediately to arrange for testing and isolation,” wrote Sheryl Tynes, Vice President for Student Life, in an email interview.
Like many viruses, the coronavirus disproportionately affects the very young and the elderly, as well as those with suppressed immune systems.
There have not been any incidents of the coronavirus at Trinity, but Trinity administration, health services and emergency management groups are working with the San Antonio Metropolitan Health Center to monitor the progression of the disease.
“We are in constant communication, not only with Metro Health but with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention from all levels. There are updates all the time, so we are really trying to keep abreast of all of those and see how those may affect what we may need to do,” said Emergency Management Coordinator Ivan Pendergast.
While the coronavirus is similar to the seasonal flu in some respects, it varies in that it is a new disease.
Tynes explained key differences in the response to the coronavirus.
“A letter has been sent informing students of a new viral outbreak and including information on precautions. Ongoing discussion today with multiple offices regarding our students studying abroad in China currently. International students from China who may have traveled over winter break were notified of precautions last week. We sent a note about an increased emphasis on hand hygiene,” Tynes wrote.
While this virus is certainly a severe health risk, there are steps students can take to protect themselves and stay healthy this season.
“We continue to follow infection-control practices at Health Services. We are encouraging any student entering with cough, fever, upper respiratory symptoms to wear a mask. We are advising any student diagnosed with influenza or a flu-like illness to refrain from attending classes until fever-free for 24 hours,” Tynes wrote.