The University of Richmond’s decision on March 16 to suspend in-person instruction for the remainder of the semester left many students uncertain about the next few weeks of the semester.
The decision to transition to online learning for the rest of this spring came after UR President Ronald A. Crutcher originally wrote that UR would likely move to online classes until April 3, according to an email sent to the UR community on March 11.
This change from remote instruction until April 3 to remote instruction for the rest of the semester has caused many students to worry about how they would adjust their plans or travel home.
As UR moves toward online instruction for the remainder of the spring semester, students are deciding what they should do.
Junior Lucy Cummins was on The SEEDS Project's trip in Detroit, Michigan, when she saw UR's COVID-19 update, she said.
“A lot of us had similar reactions,” Cummins said. “We were pretty disappointed that we were going to have to be leaving campus, and a lot of people were scrambling to try to figure out how they would get home.”
The prices of flights fluctuated for different airlines as schools nationwide announced closures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
After returning from the SEEDS trip, Cummins said she had tried to fly home to Portland, Oregon, from Richmond. But the prices were too expensive, she said. The flight prices were cheap for about an hour when she was looking, and then they spiked, she said.
Other students expressed concern over the uncertainty that had surrounded UR's original decision to move to remote instruction until April 3.
“It would have been a far better position to give some finality to what we’re doing for the rest of the semester at the beginning rather than saying, ‘We’ll reevaluate April 3,’” said Gabe Josephs, a junior from the Bahamas.
Although the April 3 return date appeared uncertain to some students on campus, many seniors were hoping to return to campus on that date to finish their final semester before graduation.
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Senior Claire Griffiths said she appreciated that UR had taken the time to really consider what was going on in the U.S. and Virginia area before making its decision.
“The small things we’ve looked forward to [as seniors], like sorority farewell dinners or the business school dinner at the VMFA with all of our professors, are things we all wanted,” Griffiths said. “While the decision was delayed, I appreciate that it wasn’t a rash decision where everything was cancelled for forever, so there [was] still some hope, and I appreciate that the school decided to do that.”
Brittany Schaal, director of emergency management and emergency planning, worked with facilities and other departments on campus to prepare for UR’s shutdown. Schaal did not comment at this time.
Dean of Westhampton College Mia Reinoso Genoni and Dean of Richmond College Joe Boehman sent an email on March 16 to students who had applied and had been approved to stay on campus after Crutcher emailed the campus community on March 16.
Genoni and Boehman wrote that there are only two main circumstances under which a student may request permission to remain on campus: if one's home country has shut its borders and one does not have an alternative place to stay or if one is a student who experiences food insecurity or other similarly serious circumstances and does not have an alternate place to stay.
This email comes after an email written on March 11, where Crutcher informed UR students via email that they had until 5 p.m. on March 13 to request an exemption to stay in on-campus housing during the period of distance learning set to begin on March 23, according to the email.
About 380 students were originally approved by the Office of Residence Life and Undergraduate Student Housing to stay in on-campus housing during the period of remote learning, Patrick Benner, director of residence life and housing, wrote in an email to The Collegian.
Maria Navarro, a senior from Managua, Nicaragua, had been among students who were initially approved to remain on campus.
“We obviously feel very isolated at the moment, but I think it’s for the best,” Navarro said.
On March 12, the Office of International Education hosted an informal meeting with about 25 students, most of whom were international, Navarro said. At the meeting, Dean of International Education Martha Merritt encouraged students to ask questions and express their concerns, Navarro said.
“[The Office of International Education] has been open to having conversations with us and understanding our worries,” Navarro said. “I feel heard and cared for."
Students who initially petitioned to stay on campus after Crutcher's email on March 11 received responses from Residence Life during the weekend of March 13. But multiple exchange and international students who received approval hadn’t made their decisions yet.
Hera Liew, a junior exchange student from South Korea who received approval to stay on campus, said that the Office of International Education wasn’t prepared to answer students’ most pressing concerns, especially financial ones, making her decision to stay difficult.
Liew received approval to stay on campus when she initially requested it after March 11, she said.
For many international students, the decision to stay is further complicated by a rule that applies to students with visas, said Penny Hu, a first-year student from Hangzhou, China. Hu said she hadn’t decided whether to stay because she would have to reapply for her visa.
“If we leave the country in the middle of our studies for more than five months, then our F1 visa and I20 will be canceled and we’ll have to reapply,” Hu said.
The reapplication process is long, expensive and complicated, she said.
Floriane Vallée, a senior exchange student from France, said the original uncertainty of whether in-person classes would resume after April 3 had made her decision more difficult because it was unclear as to whether she would need to come back to UR.
Ray Hotta, a senior from Tokyo, said that emails sent by Residence Life to students who were approved to stay on campus contained designated times for students, staff and faculty to pick up prepared meals from the Heilman Dining Center lobby and Passport Cafe.
All university dine-in locations will be closed as of March 14, and students were told to eat in their residence halls and apartments, Hotta said. Everything Convenience will be open seven days a week but with limited hours, according to the email Hotta received.
Who’s trying to come home from abroad?
With health concerns in Europe and other parts of the world, many UR study abroad programs have also transitioned to remote instruction. UR sent a message to students studying abroad on March 12 stating that it was strongly advised for them to make travel arrangements home.
For some students, the cost of changing an international flight was not financially possible. “The issue immediately was that I’m on financial aid at school, so how am I going to afford a flight home?” said Omar Ibrahim, a junior studying at Queen Mary University of London.
Ibrahim reached out to the Office of International Education requesting financial help, he said.
“All they said was that they’d put me on the list of students who have requested assisted travel funding and they’d get back to me, but they didn’t have a time table,” he said. “Then I got an email from Delta telling me that if I had a flight booked, they’d waive my cancellation fees to switch to another flight, and I only paid the difference in fares.
“So luckily I found a flight that was the same fare back to JFK, where I flew out from, and now I have a flight out on Monday.”
Junior Shamim Ibrahim, who is in a year-long program at the London School of Economics, said UR funded her flight change to return home early.
“So definitely the flight cost more than expected," she said. "But I reached out to the dean Genoni and Fankhauser and yes, UR will be covering my cost for that.”
The uncertainty associated with being abroad during the COVID-19 outbreak also had an impact on students and their decisions of whether to return home.
Director of Study Abroad Michele Cox contacted participants on a program at St. Louis University’s campus in Madrid, Spain, on Feb. 24 with early details about COVID-19, said Sabrina Duarte, a junior on the program.
Duarte’s program moved to online classes on Monday, March 16, but the structure wasn’t the same because of the types of courses she was taking, she said.
“I’m taking a dance class, a painting class and voice lessons,” Duarte said. “So for my dance class I now just watch videos of my professor dancing and follow her steps.”
Spain went into a national shutdown and quarantine on Sunday, March 15, Duarte said.
“The way I see it is I just keep reminding myself it’s fine and everything’s okay,” Duarte said. “Nobody has a protocol or policy written down on what to do with a global pandemic.”
Duarte decided to fly to Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Sunday, March 15, and stay with cousins rather than return to her permanent address in Richmond.
“There are some cases in Brazil, but it’s not that much compared to Europe and the U.S.,” she said. “With all the chaos in America my parents thought it would be best to send me to Brazil.”
Flights to Brazil were also less expensive than flying back to the U.S., she said.
Junior Eden Kim was scheduled to fly to South Korea in late February to start her exchange program at Yonsei University, but cancelled her plans after the Office of International Education advised her not to go, Kim said.
Yonsei University postponed the start of its semester two weeks and changed to remote instruction for the first two weeks of classes, Kim said. After her program was changed, Kim worked with Jepson faculty to enroll at UR as a part-time student for the remainder of the semester, she said.
Kim said that although her experience had been difficult, she felt sorry for everyone, especially the seniors.
"I hope we can all take care of each other in this time," Kim said.
This is the first installment of a five-part series to be published this about COVID-19.
Managing editor Emma Davis and editor-in-chief Olivia Diaz contributed to reporting.
Contact features editor William Roberts at firstname.lastname@example.org and lifestyle editor Emma Phelps at email@example.com.
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