As Coronavirus Spreads, New England Schools Put Programs in China on Hold

The U.S. State Department has urged people planning travel to China to reconsider it in light of the new coronavirus outbreak

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The new coronavirus hasn't been yet been detected in New England, but local schools are among the health officials in the region taking precautions to prevent the potentially deadly illness from catching hold.

Study abroad and student exchange programs for China, the origin of the new virus, at universities and high schools across New England are being put on hold, including at Boston University and Middlebury College. That's due to the disease, which has killed at least 130 people, all in China, and because of strict limits Chinese authorities have placed on transportation.

Airport officials and passengers are on high alert after a sick passenger came in from China. That passenger was determined not to have coronavirus.

"It's super disappointing," said Ezra Korn-Meyer, a Brookline, Massachusetts, high school student who'd been set to join a 20-year-old exchange program next Thursday and immerse himself in Chinese culture.

But the school is deciding this week whether to allow its students to travel to Xi'an, China, some 400 miles from the center of the outbreak, in Wuhan. Similar exchange programs to Brookline's in Newton and Norton have shut down already.

"I feel to feel like I can blame somebody or it's somebody’s fault but I understand its not. Nobody wants this, it's not ideal," said Korn-Meyer, who's been studying Chinese since the fourth grade.

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The U.S. State Department has urged people planning travel to China to reconsider it in light of the new coronavirus outbreak. As Chinese authorities attempt to contain its transmission, travel has been heavily restricted.

Only five confirmed cases have been reported in the U.S. so far, but authorities are on alert at international airports across the country, including Boston — which had a coronavirus scare Wednesday.

A sick passenger on a flight from China landing at Boston Logan did not turn out to have coronavirus, but schools around the area are taking precautions with study abroad programs amid the outbreak.

Several local universities have been affected so far.

Middlebury College student Benjy Renton, an East Asian Studies major, planned to study abroad at Middlebury’s program in China for both a January term — he's in an "incredibly deserted" Beijing now — and the spring semester. But the coronavirus situation caused his school to suspend his the latter offering.

Meanwhile, Renton's spending most of his time inside a dorm room, venturing out pretty much only for food.

“Sometimes, our temperatures are taken when going inside," he said via videochat, adding that "Middlebury definitely made the right decision."

He'll fly back home to New York this weekend and return to campus in Vermont the week after next.

More than three dozen affected Middlebury students will now either enroll for spring classes at the college, at other U.S. universities or with study abroad programs in different countries still accepting spring admissions, the college’s dean of international programs said Wednesday.

Boston's Logan International Airport is now screening for coronavirus, and with college students arriving from around the globe, concerns are rising on campuses that the city might get its first case of the deadly contagion.

“This will be a great disappointment for the students, and we understand that,” Carlos Velez noted. “But again, safety is what comes first. And we didn’t think we had an option.”

The school will point returning students to federal health guidelines to monitor themselves for any possible symptoms, Velez said.

Boston University has indefinitely postponed its study abroad program in Shanghai, which was scheduled to start in mid-February, according to a university spokesman. Those students will stay in Boston or go to other study abroad programs.

The University of Massachusetts, Amherst made the same decision, a spokeswoman said. The seven students who'd planned to travel there can go to another study abroad program or stay on campus in the spring semester as well.

Universities across the country have been making similar decisions, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Two people in New Hampshire are being monitored for possible coronavirus infection, health officials said. The announcement came after Boston's mayor discussed its preparations.

The high school exchange program that may not take Korn-Meyer from Brookline to China has already brought Swanny Liu from China to Brookline.

He's been living with Korn-Meyer's family and they've been learning a lot from each other — what similarities and differences they have, Liu said.

He heads back to China in a few days, and he's confident the outbreak will be contained: "I believe in our government. Our government will solve this problem."

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