On Wednesday afternoon, the International Programs (IP) office announced the Harding University in Florence (HUF) campus would be shut down for the remainder of the semester following the spread of the coronavirus in northern Italy, which has been closely monitored by the Harding Department of Public Safety and the IP office over the last week.
“After much deliberation, a decision was made this morning to close the campus in Florence for the remainder of the spring semester,” said Executive Director of IP Audra Pleasant. “We had already taken several just preventative actions earlier, before today, to just make sure our students there had all the information available to them regarding best practices for avoiding the transmission of any illness — you know, the flu or anything not necessarily related to coronavirus. That has been of course in our minds at a heightened level in recent days.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 26, over 400 cases of coronavirus have been reported through northern Italy, though there are currently no confirmed cases in Florence. Pleasant said no HUF students were infected with the virus.
“At this time, the decision was not made out of a direct impact to any Harding University Florence student, faculty member or personnel,” Pleasant said. “It was only based on circumstances relating to areas nearby but not there.”
IP made the decision Wednesday morning to end the trip two months before its intended completion date, April 26. The campus is expected to be completely shut down by Friday, Feb. 29, with students well on their way home by that time.
Kim Kirkman, executive director of the American Studies Institute, is the mother of sophomore HUF student Everett Kirkman. She said she is feeling a mixture of emotions with Wednesday’s announcement.
“I am very disappointed for the students and the faculty on the trip,” Kirkman said. “It’s an adventure of a lifetime, and it’s getting cut short — too short. But you know, I appreciate that we are trying to keep our students safe.”
HUF Director Robbie Shackelford told HUF students Wednesday evening in Florence that the trip would be ending early. Pleasant also sent out an email to HUF students regarding travel home and financial compensation. Sophomore HUF student Ellie Shelton said the students sat in shock after hearing the news.
“We all put in so much work, money and preparation to be able to have this experience, and we only got three weeks before the executive decision for us to go back to the States was made for us,” Shelton said. “A lot of people here are angry and upset with the decision. Personally, I can’t believe that the students themselves had no say in the situation.”
HUF students will be able to complete their remaining coursework online after returning to the States; full credits will be received. Students were also informed that they would be receiving a refund on all unused room and board fees and travel charges. No official dollar amount has been set yet.
“We are working with Harding to calculate the most fair and generous thing possible,” Pleasant said. “So as much as we are able to refund, we will. We want to be fair to the students, and we know this is very disappointing to them, and we want to try to do as much as we can financially to make up for that.”
This is the first time a fall or spring international program has been sent home early. In summer 2005, a College of Business Administration trip to England ended prematurely due to bombings in London.
“No one is eager to send students home when this is something they’ve been looking forward to and saving for, and so it’s definitely not a decision that was made lightly,” Pleasant said. “I’m just thankful for the patience and support that everyone has shown. I know that there’s a lot of disappointment right now. We feel disappointed too, but everyone has just been so lovely.”
Pleasant said it is too early to make a decision regarding other international programs. IP had already made the decision to cancel the India portion of the fall 2020 Harding University in Australasia (HUA) trip earlier this year due to other reasons. No other changes have been planned for HUA yet. Both Harding University international campuses in Latin America and Greece are presently being monitored with no current plans for cancellation.