This is a developing story.
Boston College will cancel all in-person classes through the end of the semester and move to online instruction, according to an email sent to the community by University President Leahy.
It will also close residence halls and require students to "vacate their rooms by Sunday, March 15 at 9:00 p.m." Those who cannot return to their homes because of "international travel restrictions, serious personal reasons, or University obligations" must obtain written permission from the Office of Residential Life to remain in University housing, according to the email.
"Keeping students on campus is the most sensible course of action at this point," Professor Philip Landrigan, MD, told the The Gavel in a phone interview before BC released its decision. "The last thing I would do is to make students travel home and get infected or infect other people on the way."
"Avoid extraneous gatherings like large lectures, which increase exposure," said Landrigan, who had been briefing the administration. "Switching classes online will help, so will other common-sense preventive measures."
"For average BC students with no health complications, the effects of the coronavirus should be similar to that the common flu," Landrigan said. "In fact I have no doubt that there are already cases on campus, since the incubation period can last for 14 days."
The BC administration had revealed little about its contingency plans since students returned from spring break three days ago.
On Monday, classes resumed at BC. On Tuesday, Massachusetts confirmed 51 new cases of COVID-19 and declared a State of Emergency. Harvard and MIT closed that afternoon. On Wednesday, the World Health Organization declared COIVD-19 a global pandemic. Northeastern, BU and UMass Boston then moved classes online.
At the time of publication, 16 universities in the Boston area had closed or moved classes online
As other schools in the area closed, anxiety was building up on BC campus. Texts swamped group chats, coughs turned heads, friends hesitated to hug each other.
"Mass hysteria on a college campus is not fun," said Lexie Slotterback, MCAS '22.
Will all classes move online? Is anyone infected? Will students be required to leave? Many asked.
On Tuesday evening, students received an official statement from the university in the form of Tweets.
"At this time, Boston College remains open," BC's official twitter account stated on Tuesday evening. "Decisions made by the administration will be disseminated by the University."
The Tweet was partly in response to widespread speculation that BC would shift to online classes starting Wednesday.
The rumor started on Tuesday afternoon after Professor Chokdee Rutirasiri emailed his students saying that BC would "make the official announcement tomorrow morning to move classes online." A screenshot of the email soon spread on social media. Barstool Boston College, an Instagram account with more than 6000 followers, also reposted the photo.
Rutirasiri later retracted the statement, as shown in the university's Tweet.
Some professors had responded to concerns by moving their own classes online and encouraging students with flu-like symptoms to stay home. The Center for Teaching Excellence sent out an email on Monday with guides that would help faculty to teach remotely "should the need arise."
A Change.org petition calling for the university to temporarily move all classes online received more than 2,400 signatures within three days.
The university will "continue to discuss this[remote teaching] as an option", Vice President for Student Affairs Joy Moore told The Heights, a student publication that had reached out for comments.
A student had tested positive for the virus at University Health Services(UHS), according to another widespread rumor that contributed to the frenzy.
"I tried to ask for more clarification but was told I needed to leave," said Lucas Carroll, staff writer of The Gavel and MCAS '22. "As I was leaving a student stopped me and asked if it’s true that there are confirmed cases. I told her I’m not sure, and she said she’s terrified about the whole situation."
"I called the head of Brookline’s health department, but she did not pick up," Carroll said of his attempt to gather more information. "It was very clear on her answering machine that she’s going to be on vacation till the 16th and won’t check her answering machine before that."
"At this time, there have been no reported cases of Coronavirus at Boston College," the university Tweeted later that night.
More than 70 comments flooded the thread within an hour, most of which were from students asking the administration for clarification. The account did not respond.
The lack of information left many students confused and concerned.
"I hate all the rumors that crop up when the administration doesn’t say anything," said Quinn Usry, MCAS '22.
"I understand that they[the administration] are in a tough spot, " said Alec Keblish, MCAS '23. "Obviously student safety is the top priority, but the administration is not being as proactive or transparent as they need to be."
Some seniors worried that the outbreak would affect what's left of their time on the heights. "Coming back after spring break felt like getting ready to say a long, extended goodbye," said MaryElizabeth Mooney, MCAS '20, "and getting sent home soon would deprive us of that."
The situation is also difficult for international students. For many of them, returning home will not be an option if BC chooses to close its dorms. "I hope they would let us stay here," said Ho Wong, MCAS '22, whose family lives in China, "or at least let us know what to expect."
“Senior administrators have been closely monitoring developments related to COVID-19, and the guidelines issued by the CDC and Massachusetts Department of Public Health. We are also in close contact with institutions of higher learning in the Greater Boston area,” Associate Vice President of University Communications Jack Dunn said on Tuesday night in an email to The Heights.
Dunn has not responded to The Gavel's request for comments.
More than 100 colleges across the U.S. have shifted to remote classes to prevent the spread of the coronavirus as of Wednesday. Some universities, such as University of Washington and Rice, cancelled classes after someone in the community tested positive for the virus. Others have done so as a precautionary measure.
As of Tuesday night, there were more than 900 cases and 30 deaths in the U.S. Nine states declared a state of emergency. Washington, California and New York each reported more than 100 cases.
"It should be taken seriously, since risks are significantly higher for the elderly and other vulnerable groups," said Landrigan, who is the director of the Program in Global Public Health and the Common Good. "It is important to keep in mind that the disease situation is not static and there are still risks and uncertainties."
Older people and people with chronic diseases such as heart issues or diabetes are at higher risk, according to the CDC.
For people aged 10 to 29, the COVID-19 death rate has been recorded at 0.2 percent. About 80 percent of coronavirus cases are mild, according to a recent study from the Chinese Center for Disease Control. By comparison, the estimated average death rate of the common flu is 0.1 percent, according to the CDC.
Common signs of infection include “respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties,” according to the WHO. In more severe cases, infection can cause “pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.”
COVID-19 can be transmitted person-to-person or contact with contaminated surfaces or objects, according to the CDC. Some infections might be possible even before people show symptoms.
Each infected person generates an estimated roughly 2.3 more infections, according to preliminary studies conducted in China. Protective measures like those recommended by the WHO reduce that rate. The rate needs to dip below 1 for an epidemic to begin to quell, according to Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
The WHO recommended “regular hand washing, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing and avoiding close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness” among other measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
The virus outbreak has caused significant disruptions to the global economy as well.
The global stock market plunge on Monday saw the S&P fall nearly 8 percent, its biggest daily decline since December 2008.
Unable to agree on how to offset the outbreak, Saudi Arabia launched a price war against its former ally Russia. It further destabilized the oil market.
The Chinese economy, a vital link of the supply chain, has already started showing signs of slowing after months of quarantine measures hampered production.
President Donald Trump has not appeared concerned about the outbreak. "It looks like by April," Trump told supporters at a rally in New Hampshire last month. "You know in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away; hope that's true, but we are doing great in our country."
"It[the outbreak] is getting politicized on the national stage, which is concerning," said Landrigan. "Communication is key in this kind of situation, and the most important thing is to have data-based contingency plans in place."