West Chester University on Tuesday became the first local university to cancel all “in-person, face-to-face instruction” for the rest of the semester and use alternative means of communication beginning March 30, as concern about the coronavirus spread.
While several other area colleges have extended spring break and announced they will go online at least through early April, West Chester president Christopher Fiorentino said university officials determined it wouldn’t make sense to bring students back after spring break, which is this week.
About 3,000 of the campus’ more than 17,000 students said they intended to travel over the break, about 400 of them internationally, he said. They would be on planes, trains, and cruise ships, he said.
“We knew there was going to be a high potential for exposure,” he said. 'We’re taking the course of action that we believe gives us the most control in order to successfully complete the semester."
Also on Tuesday, Rutgers University announced it would cancel classes beginning Thursday through spring break and resume with online instruction on March 23. The online instruction will continue at least through April 3. Other universities in the region, including Princeton and Stockton, have announced a similar course, joining dozens of colleges and universities in the United States.
Other universities continued to limit visitors to campus and restrict or cancel travel by staff and students. Drexel, which is known for its co-op program that places students in jobs for some of their schooling, announced it would cancel all international co-op placements for spring and summer and study-abroad programs for the spring term, as well as spring break intensive courses abroad.
West Chester is Pennsylvania’s largest state-run university. As of late Tuesday afternoon, none of the 13 other schools in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education announced plans to take similar action.
“That option is being considered across the state system,” said system spokesperson Dave Pidgeon.
West Chester has not had a case of coronavirus but is making the decision “out of an abundance of concern for the continued good health of our community,” Fiorentino said.
In-person classes will be canceled until March 30 to give faculty time to prepare alternate means of instruction. Those will include video conferencing, online classes, and email communication, he said. Classes are scheduled to run through May 4.
The university has made arrangements to provide students with laptops if they don’t have one and to assist with internet access, he said.
“We’ve assessed our capabilities and we are confident that we can do this,” he said.
The university has been in touch with accrediting bodies including the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which has been supportive, Fiorentino said.
Most of the 5,100 students who live on West Chester’s campus will not be allowed to remain. University residence halls and South Campus apartments will be closed, the school said. The university will contact students with a scheduled time to return to campus and collect their belongings.
To students, it came as a shock.
“It’s crazy,” said Mallory Bernlohr, 20, a finance, economics and accounting major from York. “It kind of stinks, I’m not going to lie.”
She, like other students, was trying to find alternative housing to remain in the area.
Bernlohr said the decision to cancel classes seems premature. It will be difficult to teach math and lab courses online, she said.
“I understand why they did it,” she added. “But it’s going to be very difficult to go through with their plans.”
Bobby Carlson, 19, a sophomore communications major from Schnecksville, had mixed feelings. He worries about not interacting directly with his professors.
"You don’t want to put any students in harms’ way,” he said. “But I think it is an extreme decision to close the school down and there are no cases in West Chester.”
About 60 students, including those who are homeless and are international, will be allowed to stay on campus, but their contact with others will be limited, Fiorentino said. For example, they will be provided frozen meals to make in their rooms, he said.
Large public events and gatherings also will be canceled, including the university’s 37th Annual Presidential Scholarship Community Gala.
Athletic contests, which are largely in state, will continue, he said, noting that athletes travel on chartered buses and the sports are played outdoors.
All internships for credit, clinical training, and student teaching assignments also will continue as long as the places students work remain open, he said. No decision has been made on how to handle graduation, he said.
The university intends to reimburse or otherwise make whole the students who will lose their housing on campus and those who lost study abroad experiences, he said.