On Feb. 28, the university announced that it was suspending its program at Casa Artom in Venice, Italy, as the coronavirus continues to worsen in the country.
The outbreak of coronavirus, also known by the disease it causes, COVID-19, in Italy has been the worst in Europe so far. The virus was first reported in Italy at the end of January and spread rapidly throughout the country in February. As of March 4, the Italian government confirmed that 107 people have died due to the illness — more than in any country other than China — and that 3,089 people have been infected — a number only surpassed by China and South Korea. The Italian government has imposed restrictions to help combat the spread of the disease, such as the closure of schools, museums and the suspension of large public gatherings.
Provost Rogan Kersh announced the closure of Casa Artom in an email to the university community last Friday. Academic operations ceased immediately, and students will be returning to campus March 15, which coincides with the end of spring break.
Kersh wrote that this decision came out of the uncertainty of the situation as the disease spreads, with particular concern regarding the students’ ability to eventually return to the United States.
“While the health risk to the students and the faculty member in Venice remains low, the decision takes into consideration the uncertainty regarding local and international travel restrictions if the coronavirus continues to spread,” Kersh said in the email. “Such restrictions would affect the study abroad experience for these students and could impact their ability to return to the United States at a later date.”
Wake Forest joins other universities across the United States in bringing students back home from study abroad programs in Italy.
The 19 students and one professor who were living at Casa Artom this semester had also been notified on Friday morning of the decision and had to arrange to leave Venice by the weekend.
Junior Lilli Cooper, who had been studying abroad at Casa Artom, said she and her fellow peers were shocked by the announcement.
“There were lots of tears, lots of frustration,” she said. “I think we were struggling to understand how things had changed so quickly and we basically had been given 48 hours to leave. This is not how any of us felt this semester was going to end.”
When students return, the university will accommodate them and are trying to keep things as consistent as they can be for the students. According to a message sent home to parents by David Taylor, assistant dean for global study away, the students will reside in on-campus housing, unless they choose to live off campus, and will be provided a meal plan — all at no additional cost.
Page West, a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship who had been the professor in residence at Casa Artom this semester, will resume teaching his classes on campus and said there are plans in place for the students to continue their coursework with the local professors from Venice.
“I will of course teach normally in the classroom here,” West said. “The classes taught by local Italian faculty will be a combination of real time via Webex (over a seven-hour time difference!), online and mixed. All the Italian faculty are stepping up to do whatever they can to continue working with our students under these highly unusual circumstances.”
President Nathan Hatch addressed the coronavirus and the suspension of the Casa Artom program in an email sent to the Wake Forest community on March 4, noting that the students will be screened by Student Health.
“We are grateful the students are all healthy and regret that their experience abroad was cut short,” Hatch said in the email. “We welcome them back to campus for the remainder of the semester. Even though the students will have exceeded the 14-day incubation period prior to their return, Student Health Service will take the extra precaution of screening these students before they move into the residence halls.”
Hatch also noted that there are currently no plans to suspend other study abroad programs, but that they are monitoring the situation carefully in accordance with updates from the CDC and other government officials. Other university students studying abroad have been advised to avoid travel to Italy, as the U.S. government has also issued a travel warning for the country.
Saying that this is the first time something like this has happened, West said that they are working towards the overall wellbeing of their students as they transition back to campus.
“We are plowing some new ground, learning and inventing a bit as we move forward,” West said. “So while occasionally it may seem to some as a bit disorganized, we are all keeping our eye on the most important goals for our students.”
For Cooper, she acknowledges that this has been a difficult and upsetting time, although there is little control over the situation. She anticipates that this will be a difficult transition to make mid-semester, but that she and her Casa Artom peers are going to make the best of it.
“They are trying to do what they can to help us maintain the sense of community we had at Casa Artom but we’ve been placed in vacant beds all across campus and don’t even know what our day to day schedule is going to look like yet,” Cooper said. “The only silver lining here is that we are a very special group of friends that I know will do whatever we can to stay close through all of this and try and come together despite the incredibly unfair circumstances we find ourselves in.”