Barnard and Columbia have confirmed that a member of the community is currently in quarantine after exposure to COVID-19. In light of the growing outbreak of the coronavirus, and its newfound threat to the Columbia community, the University has decided to suspend classes until Wednesday, when remote instruction will continue until spring break.
The University declined to provide details on when administrators will notify students about canceled or online classes after spring break. Dining halls and facilities will remain open as usual.
Columbia’s decision follows similar moves by a number of institutions—most notably Stanford University and the University of Washington—to cancel in-person classes after affiliates tested positive for the virus. Universities across the nation have also suspended sponsored travel-abroad programs and placed restrictions on travel to high-risk areas such as Italy and China, following recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent further spread of the virus. Earlier this week, Columbia sent emails to students abroad recommending that those in high-risk areas return home.
Prior to this announcement, faculty had received a notice from Executive Vice President and Dean of the Arts and Sciences Amy Hungerford about preparations for a potential move to online classes that include the incorporation of Zoom, a virtual classroom application. Columbia had also released a series of announcements canceling events, the most recent of which discouraged “nonessential” gatherings of more than 25 people. The same email also said that classes would continue.
Prior to Columbia’s most recent email, some instructors had announced their decisions to move classes and postpone midterms under their own discretion. In an email to students, one faculty member noted their confusion about the University’s decision to still allow class gatherings.
“It sounds like classes aren’t considered events (or maybe they’re just essential events?), but it seems prudent for larger classes like ours to no longer meet physically,” the instructor’s email said.
Mailman School of Public Health professor Irwin Redlener has been an open critic of the government’s handling of the virus, noting that the unknown nature of the virus’ behavior should have led officials to enforce more stringent testing protocol. He said that universities are currently attempting to assess the situation in order to make the most suitable decisions.
“Every institution and business and academic center is trying to figure out. In general, the principle is to try to reduce travel and large-scale gatherings. Let’s say you have a big mix, a big lecture hall and classes and seminars, you have to be able to assess the entire situation and decision,” Redlener said.
Over 800 students responded when Joon Baek, CC ’21 and a physics teaching assistant, created a Facebook event titled “Let’s not go to classes.” In the event, students expressed their concerns over attending class, and the post’s description urged students to prioritize their health given the growing instances of community spread. Most notably, family, friends, and clients of the second COVID-19 patient in NYC contracted the virus from him before his quarantine at Columbia University Medical Center, where he is currently being treated.
While the mortality rate may remain somewhere between 0.1 to 1 percent in the United States, Baek emphasized that he started the group because prevention is especially dire for individuals who have compromised immune systems and are more likely to contract the virus.
“The mortality rate is not that high, but there are some of us on campus that have compromising [health conditions],” Baek said. “We should all be cautious.”
As Columbia College Student Council international student representative, Baek has been approached by many students from high-risk countries who have expressed concern over future travel risks. In the event that the risks continue into summer, he hopes that Columbia will provide housing for students in need.
“They understand why they cannot go back to their home country. One thing that they are quite worried about. I’m from South Korea. I hope they don’t shut down the housing,” Baek said.