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‘No one saw this coming’: Saint Mary’s students studying abroad in Rome prepare to return to the U.S. as coronavirus spreads throughout Italy

| Monday, March 2, 2020

The Roman Forum sat empty under a clouded gray sky Sunday morning, the few visitors passing beneath the ancient stone arches wearing face masks. The Colosseum, one of the most visited monuments in Italy, was similarly vacant.

Students from Saint Mary’s made their last rounds through their favorite historical spots in Rome Sunday, preparing to cut their semester abroad short.

Courtesy of Cait Prestage

The Roman Forum appeared empty Sunday in wake of Italy’s coronavirus epidemic.

Walking the streets of the Rome, sophomore Cait Prestage noted how empty the city felt.

“It doesn’t feel right. We were all saying it feels like the apocalypse.” Prestage said. “And no one wants to get too close to each other to breathe when you’re out in public. You hear one person cough and everyone stares.”

Trastevere, a neighborhood on the west bank of the Tiber known for its artisan shops and restaurants, is particularly quiet, Prestage said. Only a few people sat in La Tavernetta 29 da Tony, or Tony’s — a favorite dinner location for Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame students studying abroad in Rome.

Many people in Rome wear masks as a preventative measure, Prestage said, even though the World Health Organization only instructs those who are sick or in direct contact with someone who is sick to wear masks.

Just after 12:30 a.m. Saturday, Saint Mary’s announced that the 33 students studying at John Cabot University (JCU) in Rome would be immediately pulled from their study abroad semester and sent home. This decision follows the continued spread of coronavirus throughout regions of Europe, including parts of Italy.

Sophomores Grace Floerchinger and Josie Gibson had been with Prestage in Rome for about seven weeks before the announcement was made.

Prestage was traveling in Switzerland with a friend when she first learned that she and the other Saint Mary’s students would be heading back to the U.S.

“I was visiting Switzerland with my friend Emma, and we were actually going in a big group to Switzerland originally, but then people ended up canceling their flights when everything started getting a little bit crazy,” she said. “We found out while we were in Switzerland, and it was just like a whirlwind of like, ‘Can we go back and get our stuff? Do we need to go back and get our stuff? Should we just go home from here?’”

Courtesy of Cait Prestage

Saint Mary’s sophomore Emma Berges boards a flight back to Rome to collect her belongings before evacuating with the majority of students studying abroad.

Making emergency travel plans was especially difficult, Prestage said.

“Trying to work that out is hard, especially when you’re seven hours away from your family, or the people who are supposed to be helping you,” Prestage said.

In the days before Saturday’s announcement, Saint Mary’s officials told students they were safe to remain in Italy, Gibson said. At the same time, Notre Dame students also studying in Rome were having regular meetings in their villa, discussing the possible consequences if the travel advisories were to escalate.

“We were out with Notre Dame people and they were telling us that if [the warning] hit Level 3, then they were going home,” Gibson said. “We knew that if they were going home, we would be going home.”

Saint Mary’s students were soon alerted of their immediate departure, following the heightened safety risks.

“Saturday morning, we all woke up to the email saying we need to basically needed to pack our bags and have a flight booked, but they didn’t tell us what we needed to leave by,” Gibson said.

Students were told to leave Italy by midnight on Tuesday and were instructed to complete a three-step check-in during the return process.

The students said they were frustrated by the lack of clarity from the College, which lead to widespread confusion. Following a week of assurances, the sudden influx of emails from the administration Saturday was overwhelming, Floerchinger said.

“I personally felt a little frustrated at the beginning of this whole frenzy because I was like, ‘What’s going to happen to us, what’s going on?’” she said. “We weren’t getting full transparency.”

However, Prestage said she and other students appreciate the support they have received from College administrators, particularly Jennifer Zachman, the faculty coordinator of study abroad programs.

“I know she’s heartbroken and I know her email must be blowing up,” she said. “No one can prepare for a pandemic, right? No one can prepare. No one saw this coming.”

Floerchinger, Gibson and Prestage plan to fly out of Rome on Monday morning. Upon returning to the U.S., they will be screened and submitted to up to 14 days of quarantine at home, with limited contact with family members and pets.

“We’ve all been super confused what the quarantine means,” Prestage said.

These students will complete their John Cabot courses online and are to remain mostly isolated for about two weeks.

“I think that’s the hardest part for me is like, my sister is at school, my brother works full time and my parents work full time,” Gibson said. “I’m going to be in my house alone for two weeks just sitting there. It’s going to drive me crazy.”

Waiting to learn if they have contracted any forms of coronavirus is in itself daunting as well, Gibson said.

“I think we’re all kind of anxious about like what the future holds,” she said.

Interim vice president for student affairs Linda Timm said the College made the decision to bring the students back to the U.S. with their safety as their highest priority.

“Saint Mary’s officials made the difficult decision on Friday evening to bring all students home from Rome for the remainder of the semester,” Timm said. “The Center for Disease Control and the State Department have raised the advisory against non-essential travel for Italy to Warning Level 3 due to the widespread outbreak of the novel coronavirus.”

The College has created a webpage with emergency information, travel advisories and other resources for students currently abroad and those returning to the U.S.

While the remaining Saint Mary’s study abroad programs are not impacted at this time, Timm said, the College is closely monitoring the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and the State Department and will “follow their guidelines regarding international travel.”

“We understand this is a very disappointing situation for students and parents but please know that we have all students’ best interests at heart and, more than anything, desire for their health and safety,” Timm said. “This health threat is having wide-sweeping impacts, and we are so very sorry that it has affected our students in this way.”

Junior Zoe Ricker has decided to remain in Rome, through an “opt out” option offered by the College. This process required students to request a waiver, which was to be signed and scanned to the administration by 5 p.m. EST the same day the email was sent out.

Ricker criticized the College for not deciding to call students home earlier in the week.

Jennifer Zachman, the faculty coordinator of study abroad programs, told students that the administration had first met to discuss the status of coronavirus in Italy on Wednesday, Ricker said.

“The way the situation was handled overall was messy, and the drawn-out decision-making stressed out most girls to the point that despite the option to opt-out, they have chosen to leave anyways,” she said. “The timing of school wide emails at 6 a.m. our time was ridiculous and could have been avoided by making a decision Wednesday when the administration first met.”

John Cabot University is currently prepping students for midterms, and Ricker said the timing of the announcement made students so distressed that many decided to comply with the orders to leave Rome simply to avoid further trouble.

“Overall, it felt like things could have been handled better, but I suppose there is no great way to do that in an emergency and with such a great time difference,” Ricker said. “And of course, I am now content with my signed and dated waiver to opt-out.”

Ricker will be joined by another Saint Mary’s student who also intends to stay at John Cabot.

“I think both of us feel more comfortable continuing with our studies as we have been [at John Cabot], and not worrying about whatever online courses are being concocted,” she said. “With the time difference, I doubt anything would be live or interactive, and I feel that that is necessary to my way of learning.”

Despite more and more American universities calling for the return of their students studying in Italy, Ricker said most locals feel “no sense of urgency.”

“My professors are unfazed and JCU and Saint Mary’s both continue to send out fairly general instructions to wash our hands and really just to use common sense,” she said. “I am only as scared as I am any flu season and will just be extra careful because of my location. Later, since now I know I can stay, I will be heading to the local grocery to get more hand sanitizer to keep around and hopefully some disinfectant wipes, but other than that, I am more concerned about my midterms and homework.”

As an institution, the College does not support programs that are located in regions declared Level 3 or higher, Timm said, which is why students have been asked to return to the U.S.

“This is an ever-changing situation, and we do not know if the risks will become greater if a student chooses to stay,” she said. “If a student chooses to remain and not return home at this time, they are required to sign an opt-out waiver. By signing the waiver, the student is assuming all responsibilities and risks for remaining in Italy.”

Before leaving Italy on Monday, Floerchinger, Gibson and Prestage said they would each throw one last coin into the Trevi Fountain, and wish for safe travels home and good health for all students.

“This last night is going to be the best last night we can possibly hope for, given the circumstances,” Gibson said.

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