Worried About Coronavirus, College Students Are Asking Their Schools to Cancel Class

“Now I’m in jeopardy of not graduating because I don’t want to get sick."
March 11, 2020, 10:00am
empty classroom
JHU Sheridan Libraries/Getty

After Washington state recorded 84 cases of coronavirus and 14 virus-related deaths on Friday, the University of Washington became the first college in the U.S. to announce that it would be switching to remote classes to help stop the spread of the virus. Major institutions, like Columbia and New York University, followed suit this week.

Across the country, a growing number of schools are weighing their options and deciding if they will—or if they can—switch to remote learning. As of Wednesday, Seattle University, the University of California, Berkeley, Stanford, MIT, American University, Hofstra, Barnard, Princeton, UMass Amherst, and Harvard have told students to prepare to go home and continue classes online. Many of these institutions have already faced tough questions about how to ensure that process goes as planned.

But five days since the University of Washington announced the move, many other universities, including those in areas where the coronavirus appears to be spreading, have yet to cancel in-person classes, leaving some students feeling as though they are choosing between their safety and their education.

Hunter College, a constituent college of the City University of New York (CUNY) located in the middle of Manhattan, is among those yet to cancel classes, despite there being 173 confirmed cases of coronavirus in New York. Tahra Jirari is a senior at Hunter who is uninsured, immunodeficient, and highly concerned about her safety if she continues to attend classes. She said the college is “absolutely not” responding appropriately to the virus. “All they have done is the president, Jennifer Raab, sent an email saying they are taking ‘precautions’,” she said. The only changes she’s seen are an increase in hand sanitizer and some posters about hygiene on campus.


When reached for comment, CUNY directed VICE to its public webpage about the virus. CUNY has convened a coronavirus task force and notes on the site that “the rapidly evolving nature of this situation necessitates frequent evaluation and modification of our policies and plans, which are fluid and subject to change at any time.”

Jirari has been emailing her professors asking to be excused from class because of her health condition. One professor directed her to file a claim under the ADA with the school, but in order for that claim to be approved, she’d need a doctor’s note—which she can’t afford to get because she is uninsured. “Now I’m in jeopardy of not graduating because I don’t want to get sick,” she said.

Jirari has been disappointed to see private schools around her, like Columbia and NYU, move to remote schooling while she and her fellow public school students are still being asked to attend class. “A majority of CUNYs, which have students coming from low income households, are not doing anything even though we are more at risk since we do not have the funds to fight back,” she said.

Meryl Smith, a student who attends a private college in Manhattan called The New School, is also worried that her school isn’t acting fast enough—though The New School has announced that it will resume classes online after spring break. “As a design student, you spend six hours in a large studio where 100 students, give or take, are there at the same time,” she said, expressing concern about the spread of the virus. “It is dense.”

On the other side of the country, where the outbreak has taken hold in greater numbers, students are worried, too. California State University Long Beach is one of a few schools with a circulating petition signed by students urging the administration to switch to remote learning. The petition had more than 6,800 signatures at press time. Long Beach—near LA County, which now has 20 confirmed cases of coronavirus—announced its first three coronavirus cases today. “I think the school should follow the direction of many others in CA and switch over to online classes for the time being,” said CSULB junior Hanna Brown, “or at the very least, provide an online option for people that have compromised immune systems.”

"The university has been planning for alternate delivery of instruction should it become necessary," said CSULB Director of News Media Services. "The university is also in ongoing communications with the Chancellor’s Office and public-health experts." CSULB has created what they call an academic continuity plan in the case that they do switch to remote learning, though they have yet to make that call.

Other students in affected states have put their trust in their schools. Perla Nino, a student at Chapman University in Orange County, California—which is still continuing with classes as normal—believes that her university is handling the situation well. “They send weekly updates on the health of our school, frequently provide us with information on where to receive health assistance, and the teachers are already preparing to switch to online school if necessary,” she said. “I feel very safe on campus, and I trust the school to react to the progression of the virus appropriately.”

Five cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in Orange County. Still, Jamie S. Ceman, Chapman’s Vice President of Communications, told VICE that the campus remains “low risk” but is preparing for the possibility of remote learning. “We are aggressively working toward the goal of moving classes online, and will be testing this functionality next week so we are prepared if this becomes a necessity,” she said.

While Washington, California, and New York have been hit hardest by the virus so far, students in other parts of the country aren’t immune to similar concerns. After a teacher tested positive for coronavirus in Fulton County, Georgia, all K-12 schools in the county were canceled. Yet nearby Georgia State University is continuing on its regular schedule. Bryan Salazar, a sophomore at GSU, worries that the school isn't responding in a sensible way, and is particularly concerned because GSU is a commuter school. “Commuters, like myself, live in other parts of Georgia, meaning that if we get the virus at school, we’re likely to spread it to other parts of Georgia,” he said. According to the school, GSU currently has no known cases of coronavirus.