February 26, 2020

Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff,

 I write with an update on the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, and its impact, particularly on some of our students studying or preparing to study abroad and those who come from affected areas.

While new cases in China appear to have decreased in the past few days, diagnoses of COVID-19 have risen significantly in South Korea, Iran, and Italy. Other countries have confirmed new cases as well. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. State Department have now elevated travel advisories for some nations. It is important that anyone planning to travel abroad consult their websites for travel advisories.

Several study abroad programs—including some in which our students participate—have been modified, delayed, or even canceled. Our overseas program partners, with whom the College has worked for years, are acting quickly to respond to rapidly changing situations. They are in regular contact with students, with families, and with us. We are concerned about the health and safety of students in parts of the world with significant outbreaks and we are actively working to communicate with and support them.

I am deeply saddened, as I am sure you are, by the suffering of the many people who have contracted the virus and the deaths of thousands of people, most of them in China, with increasing numbers in South Korea and other parts of the world.  I find myself thinking about the thousands and thousands of health care providers and the many other workers who are treating the sick or doing what is necessary to contain the spread of the virus, many at risk to themselves.

I also find myself thinking of the students, staff, and faculty at the College who come from regions or countries that are affected by outbreaks of the virus or have friends and relatives there. You must be terribly worried about your families, friends, communities, regions, and countries. I hope you are getting the information and support you need and are making the rest of us aware of the impact on you.

Although the number of people in the U.S. with confirmed cases of the virus is small, it is expected to rise. We have no reason to believe anyone in this community has the virus and no one should have to fear shunning or bias. This is a time to engage with one another and offer support, not to fall into unwarranted assumptions, much less the prejudice and aggression that have been reported elsewhere.

As an administration, we are primarily focused on students studying abroad in affected regions, even as we prepare for the possibility that the virus may spread widely in this country. Janna Behrens, director of the Global Education office, is actively engaged with students whose programs have been canceled and those who need information about travel within or across affected regions. Janna has been directly in touch not only with all of our students studying abroad but also with their families. This includes 26 students currently studying in Italy and four students who hope to study in South Korea later this semester. Earlier this semester, our program partners helped three students who had planned to study in China find alternate programs. Students studying abroad should continue to contact the staff of their programs for the quickest and best support. Parents with concerns are best assisted by contacting their students, who are receiving frequent updates from the local teams. 

We urge those of you with plans to travel over spring break to consult the CDC COVID-19 website for updates on the virus. A page specific to spring break travel has helpful tips. Should you choose to travel internationally, please register your travel with the U.S. State Department’s Smart Travel Enrollment Program (STEP) which gives you access to alerts from the local embassies and consulates. The College is also developing some resources related to spring break; we will write again soon to share that information.

We will continue to share news and will remain in close and regular communication with all members of our community abroad. The best way to stay informed is to:

 Regardless of where you are, we also urge you to follow some simple but effective illness prevention measures:

  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds to avoid spreading any virus to others, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Cover coughs and sneezes in your elbow or sleeve.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • If you feel unwell, stay at home in order to protect yourself and other people. 

Our staff at Amherst in Health Services, Human Resources, and Student Affairs and our off-campus partners, including the members of the Five College Consortium, Town of Amherst, and local health agencies, are doing as much as possible to keep our community healthy and are preparing for a range of possible developments. The College has activated a subset of the members of our emergency operations group who are continuously monitoring the situation, responding promptly to developments, and figuring out how best to support our students abroad while also considering how to minimize risk on campus and step up our efforts as things change.

This communication is intended simply to inform you of how students studying abroad and those who had planned to do so have been affected by the virus, assure you that we are working with those students, join you in concern and sympathy for people in places where there have been outbreaks, and let you know that we are taking reasonable measures in response to media reports that the virus is likely to spread more widely in the U.S.

This is a good time for all of us to remember how important it is to get plenty of sleep, eat well, find ways to lower stress, be aware of our own health and wellness, and be considerate of other people by staying home when we are sick. It is also a time—indeed, it is always the time—to support one another, particularly those who have already been affected by the virus, not through exposure or illness, but by virtue of what is happening in the regions and countries from which they have come to Amherst.