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CDC asks colleges, universities to 'consider' canceling foreign exchange programs and bring back US students

More than 80,000 people worldwide have been suffering from COVID-19 and it is now sparking panic in the US as well
UPDATED MAR 19, 2020
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

In what many consider an unprecedented move, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued guidance for Institutes of Higher Education (IHE) regarding their student foreign exchange programs.

In a statement released on Sunday, March 1, the CDC pointed to the global outbreak of the novel coronavirus which has infected more than 80,000 people and stressed that IHEs should "consider" postponing or even canceling upcoming student foreign exchange programs.

The agency said IHEs should "consider" asking current program participants to return to their home country, adding that those overseeing these programs should be aware that students might face unpredictable circumstances, travel restrictions, challenges in returning home, and accessing healthcare while abroad.

The CDC also advised that IHEs work with state and local public health officials to determine the best approach for when and how — chartered transportation for countries or areas assessed as high-risk for exposure — these students might return and ensure all such plans be designed to protect them from stigma and discrimination.

It was pointed out that the COVID-19 situation was "dynamic", and that given the speed of spread and the number of countries experiencing human-to-human transmission, IHEs should evaluate the risks associated with choosing to maintain programs abroad and take the appropriate proactive measures.

While the CDC did suggest that those IHEs who continued to maintain such programs could do so under their discretion, many in the education sector have been left wondering how much space they have to maneuver considering the agency has never issued a directive regarding student mobility before.

The Forum on Education Abroad and Pulse, an organization of professionals focused on health and safety in academic travel, issued a joint statement in which they acknowledged the seriousness of the issued guidance but urged that it be "read as it is written" — as guidance to "consider."

"The CDC is asking our field to consider postponing or canceling student foreign exchange programs," they said and highlighted how students are "not typically members of the population who may succumb to COVID-19."

Christine Helwick, a lawyer with the California-based firm Hirschfeld Kraemer and former general counsel for the California State University system, expressed a similar sentiment and said the word "consider" was important.

"I read the tenor of the message to be, ‘go slow and be thoughtful'," she told Inside Higher Ed. "That seems to be entirely appropriate because there are so many unknowns about the virus."

"There are just so many variables that I appreciated the fact that the CDC was not issuing draconian orders," she continued. "It was more, just, you need to think about what your circumstances are, what your risks are. It does seem to me they are encouraging not sending any new students abroad, and that makes sense, but in terms of bringing home students, I read that word 'consider' to give institutions a lot of flexibility but really remind them that they need to be thoughtful."

Not all, however, felt the CDC guidance was that flexible to interpretation. 

Sara Schwartz, the founder and president of the Massachusetts-based law firm Schwartz Hannum, which represents more than 250 educational institutions, said universities would have to take the advice seriously.

"My takeaway from the CDC guidance is that every educational institution, whether it is an independent school or a higher ed entity, needs to take seriously the mandate to 'consider,'" she said. "I think prior to this guidance, we had a lot of flexibility from a risk-management perspective, but the guidance increases the institutional risk of proceeding with these programs. The CDC is saying you better think twice."

Brad Farnsworth, vice president for global engagement at the American Council on Education, similarly said it was a "major change in policy" which "will be taken very seriously by our members."

"They will also take to heart that it’s only a consideration, and I think there will be institutions that decide to leave their programs in place," he said. "I think they will look at that very carefully. There is not just a safety issue but also a legal issue: the last thing a university wants is to appear to have been irresponsible by ignoring a statement from the CDC."

In a separate release titled 'Interim Guidance for Administrators of US Institutions of Higher Education (IHE) to Plan, Prepare, and Respond to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19),' the CDC also released guidelines for both, IHEs that do not have COVID-19 identified in their community, and IHEs that have identified cases in the community.