Harvard students ordered to move out, as US universities cancel classes amid coronavirus outbreak

Students carry boxes to their dorms at Harvard University in Cambridge, US, on March 10, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK - Students at Harvard University have been given five days to move out of campus, as schools across the United States cancel classes and move lessons online due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Tens of thousands of students in major American universities - including Stanford, Princeton and Columbia - are affected, with some colleges cancelling classes through the end of the term.

Ahead of the start of spring break at the end of this week, Harvard on Tuesday (March 10) said it would have all classes online by March 23. The university, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, asked its 36,000 graduate and undergraduate students not to return to campus after the recess and to continue studying remotely "until further notice."

"The goal of these changes is to minimise the need to gather in large groups," Harvard president Lawrence Bacow said in a statement posted on the university's website, AFP reported.

The US government has refrained from imposing an official ban so the often privately run institutions are each grappling with how best to deal with the fast-moving outbreak.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), also based in Cambridge, cancelled all gatherings likely to attract at least 150 people until May 15. Classes with 150 or more students will move online, starting this week, it said.

In New York, Columbia, New York University and Fordham announced they were switching to remote learning. Princeton University in New Jersey said it would move all lectures and seminars online from March 23 to at least April 5, as it cancelled events of more than 100 people. In California, at least five universities, including Berkeley and Stanford, have suspended all or most of their in-person classes.

Mr Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council of Education, told the Los Angeles Times that the coronavirus was "probably the greatest short-term challenge facing higher education in a generation".

Outrage and anxiety

At Harvard, whose instruction to leave campus has been greeted with outrage by its students juggling midterm exams and projects, senior Nick Wyville said he would have trouble attending his online classes from his rural family home near Anniston, Alabama.

The closest internet access is at the county's only Starbucks, miles from his home, he told the Associated Press. Students have been told that only a few exceptions would be made for the order to move out of campus, primarily for international students from countries that have been hardest hit by the virus.

"We are really panicking right now, and a lot of students have anxiety," Mr Wyville said. "A lot of us woke up this morning to a very ominous email that's essentially evicting us from campus."

At Columbia University, Vincent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology and immunology, said he thought the class cancellations would have "minimal benefit in the long run".

"It's more disruptive than it's worth," he told the Associated Press, adding that he expected the virus to continue spreading among students anyway. "Students are still going to be moving around the world, they're going to be moving around New York City, they're going to get infected."

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