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As Coronavirus Spreads, Schools Around The World Close For 300 Million Students


In the last few days, schools and universities around the world have been forced to rethink the ways students and learning should move forward in the wake of coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. As of March 4, UNESCO estimated at least 300 million students globally are not allowed to go to school because of the virus.

“While temporary school closures as a result of health and other crises are not new unfortunately, the global scale and speed of the current education disruption is unparalleled and, if prolonged, could threaten the right to education,” said UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay.

A least 22 countries on three continents have closed primary, secondary, and higher education schools, with 13 countries closing schools nationwide. Domestically, California has shuttered schools and multiple east coast states like New York are beginning to do so this week.

While not yet canceling school altogether, Missouri and other Midwest states are preparing to do so. Thus, the decisions made in the coming days will be potentially life-changing for hundreds of millions of people, touching everything from shifts toward e-learning to long-term effects on career paths, workforce development, and economic shifts.

Higher Education Disruptions Affect the Workforce

Higher education in particular might not seem like a crucial point for international planning pertaining to coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. However, campuses often reside in highly populated areas, meaning choices to congregate students, faculty, and staff, or to shutter the doors have repercussions throughout communities, both for risk of exposure and economically. Further, millions of people not attending school would postpone the entry of more workers like doctors and nurses into the labor force and interrupt day-to-day family life.

In some of the most affected areas, decisions have already been made to cancel entire semesters. This means colleges and universities could see enrollment pipelines dwindle. Reports from Australia indicate that more than half of Chinese students enrolled in universities were not present in the days leading up to the semester starting in March. Travel restrictions imposed at the government and university levels, as well as family decisions about health and safety, are preventing many students—and therefore academic dollars—from flowing into higher education.

Given the billions of dollars spent on schools and higher education around the world, closing schools, banning students, and cancelling semester(s) worth of courses (and graduations) is a strong signal for national and international panic. With so much riding on the decision-making this week, it’s important to understand the current status of schools around the world.

An International Response

Last Thursday, Japan’s prime minister shocked citizens by calling to close all schools until April. In China, in-person teaching has already been halted and some foreign campuses emptied. Local school systems throughout China have also delayed re-opening and been forced to shut down after-school programs for younger students. Millions of students across other countries such as Iran, Iraq, Italy, North Korea, and Vietnam have been affected by nationwide school closures, with untold repercussions for communities and families.

According to Times Higher Education, in Hong Kong (which has some of the highest rates of international students) administrators say resuming normal teaching within the next month is “unlikely.” So universities all over the world have begun to recall students home from the region. In some instances the educational institutions are footing the bill for return flights, while in other instances students are left to figure out unexpected travel on their own.

Academic conferences have also been canceled for spring and summer 2020, because meeting sites and travel will continue to spread the disease, so faculty are not permitted or highly encouraged not to attend conferences. The impact of this will be felt for the year to come as collaborative efforts, deal-making, and shared research will be reduced.

Despite the importance of in-person conversation for educational exchange, online platforms are in use all over the world. Where possible, classes can be conducted and work completed via the internet and shared systems. In fact, the Center for Online Education estimates that 46 percent of college students have already taken at least one class online. But following coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 we may see an educational world reborn and more dependent on distance learning.

U.S. Response In Real Time

Across the United States, cases of coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 exposure have been reported on campuses and at technical school training sites, including a nursing and rehabilitation facility in Washington state that was the focus of much attention following multiple deaths in the region. Student at several schools like the University of California-Davis have also been quarantined while awaiting test results.

With spring break beginning for many students this week and following, American universities and schools are growing more panicked about potential travel of students and faculty. Several institutions have issued complete travel bans. Others, based on guidance from the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have prohibited all travel to Level 2 and above regions of the world, and have fallen in-line with guidelines requesting students not travel during breaks, or indicating if they do, they will not be allowed back without quarantine, as the virus’ status changes.

As a result of growing fears in the United States, academic institutions across the country are also cancelling or halting school domestically and abroad. Syracuse, for example, has already recalled 342 students from Florence, after the CDC issued a warning advisory for Italy. Since that time students have been recalled with promises of travel reimbursement and the Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte declared the entire country a “red zone,” essentially placing the nation on lockdown.

Tens of thousands of other American students studying abroad have been asked to return home as soon as possible, and cancellation of summer and fall semesters of study abroad programs have begun for China, South Korea, and Italy.

The upcoming NCAA Basketball Tournament also has colleges and universities considering the implications of allowing mass travel and tournament play for students and fans. Groups such as the National College Players Association have requested the NCAA proceed with the tournament, but not allow fans to attend, in hopes of preventing crowd transmission.

Although coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has yet to significantly affect U.S. elementary or high schools, with each passing day more schools are likely to close. In states like Washington where multiple deaths have been reported, the likelihood of school cancelations and closures is ever-increasing. Many unintended consequences for parents and the economy are about to be felt.

To help create a more uniform response to the virus, the Department of Education and Public Health England created a Guidance For Educational Settings to provide real-time resources and advice to schools for students, staff, and parents. While England is geographically distant and much smaller than the United States, the number of exchange students between the countries is great.

Thus, the guidance has been gaining traction in the United States as a roadmap for day cares, primary schools, and higher education to begin thinking about the tough decisions that will need to be made in the coming days. If the past few weeks have been any indication, we’re going to need all the help we can get.

For more real-time information, please use the following resources from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control: