U of T recalls all students studying abroad as COVID-19 cases rise globally

Students abroad describe lack of communication, short notices from the university
Centre for International Experience. STEVEN LEE/THE VARSITY
Centre for International Experience. STEVEN LEE/THE VARSITY

On Friday, U of T notified students studying abroad in Germany, Spain, and France that they were being recalled home. This call was expanded on Sunday to all students abroad, asking them to declare an intention to stay or leave their host country by Monday. Students studying abroad have harshly criticized the university’s unclear communications regarding their status.

Students in Europe: Germany, Spain, and France recalled first

With COVID-19 cases across Germany, Spain, and France totaling over 15,000 at press time, the university recalled students in those countries first, prior to Sunday’s general recall. In an email sent on Friday, U of T gave students on exchange at institutions in the three countries two options: an early return that includes a withdrawal from the exchange and losing the credit, or early return while maintaining online courses at the host institution. The latter option depends on the availability of online courses at the host institution.

If the institution does not currently have information available, students are instructed to withdraw from courses.

Students affected by the recall and others who remain in countries with a rising number of cases detailed to The Varsity a severe lack of communication and general confusion as the university’s strategy for safety abroad developed.

Sam*, a third-year peace, conflict and justice (PCJ) student on exchange at Sciences Po, described being placed into quarantine twice over the span of three weeks — all with no word from U of T, despite being told by Sciences Po that home institutions were informed of the situation.

“It was terrifying,” Sam wrote to The Varsity. While Sciences Po sent Sam daily emails, and her friends who were also on exchange received daily updates from their home institutions, U of T never once contacted her while she was in and out of quarantine.

“I had no idea what was going on and what I was supposed to do. I really thought they just didn’t give a fuck,” wrote Sam. “I totally get that they’re humans too… But it just would’ve been nice for them to reach out and take a little bit more responsibility for the students they’re supposedly in charge of.”

As American universities began pulling international students from across Europe at the start of March, Saba Javed, a third-year PCJ student also at Sciences Po saw her classmates going home, with no plans from U of T to recall students at the time.

“While I know that the admin was likely overwhelmed trying to coordinate plans, it was really frustrating to see sent emails to the domestic undergrad student body telling them that they had been keeping in touch with those of us abroad, when the only email we’d received was in February which simply told us to hang tight,” Javed wrote.

“It’s overwhelming to witness how quickly this has escalated – I think on most days we’re all sort of oscillating between treating the day like any other and sitting with the dread of what this will all turn into.”

Students abroad in Singapore: “an administrative clusterfuck”

The Varsity also spoke to students in Singapore, where more than 200 cases of COVID-19 have been reported, who felt left in the dark on what they should do moving forward.

Michelle Zhang and Elizabeth Shaw, two PCJ students in Singapore, were left in the dark by the administration that did not recall them until Sunday.

Prior to Sunday’s recall, Zhang wrote “I can appreciate that this pandemic and consequent school cancellation is likely not part of regular risk management and contingency evaluations, and so comes with no administrative precedent.”

However, she told The Varsity that the last time she heard from the Centre for International Experience was in February, without any updates following the recent announcements. “We ex- change students are left without any sense of security, agency, or clarity about our current standings or our foreseeable futures,” Zhang wrote.

“Quite honestly, the way u of t is dealing with this is an administrative clusterfuck,” wrote Shaw, who also feels frustrated with a lack of communication, having only received three emails from the university, which were ambiguous about whether to stay or leave. “On March 12 they sent that general email to all U of T students saying they’re working closely with students abroad, but we haven’t received any follow up whatsoever.”

Both Zhang and Shaw confirmed that they did not receive any notice of the recall of students in Europe.

Students across the globe recalled Sunday

Students studying abroad in every country were notified via email that they were being recalled to Toronto or their home on Sunday.

Should students choose to remain abroad, they would be “putting the completion of academic activity at risk” and the university “may not be able to help with return home at a later date.” Upon their return, students are being asked to self-isolate and follow guidelines by Toronto public health authorities.

Study abroad students are being asked to complete a form prior to March 16 at 11:59 pm Toronto time in order for the university to organize their travel. The university will assist with additional incurred travel costs.

Zhang wrote to The Varsity after receiving the recall notification that she was feeling “very shocked right now and pressured to make a decision fast in the middle of the night.”

She criticized the university’s response, noting that nothing was done when Asia was experiencing the effects of COVID-19 in January, but action is being taken now when the pandemic has reached North America. “This is clearly less about our safety and more about their liability,” wrote Zhang.

U of T’s Safety Abroad Team explained in its email that the recall aligns with advice from the Canadian government to return to Canada as commercial travel becomes more limited.

In order to continue their studies students may either return early and complete their courses on- line, however, this is dependent on online courses being available from the host institution. Alter- natively, if it is not clear online completion of courses is possible, students may return early and the university will connect them with the relevant academic advisor.

*Names have been changed for privacy.

The Varsity has reached out to U of T for comment.

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