Regents suspend university-sponsored international travel

Updated: 12:15 p.m.

University-sponsored international travel is canceled for at least the next 30 days due to concerns about the impact of COVID-19 outbreaks, under a prohibition announced March 5 by the state Board of Regents.

"We understand this decision may be disappointing and disruptive, but our top priority is the safety and well-being of our students, faculty, and staff," President Wendy Wintersteen said in a March 5 email announcing the board's decision.

The temporary restriction applies to all faculty and staff travel and spring break study abroad trips, which affects roughly 300 ISU students, said Frank Peters, director of the Study Abroad Center and C.G. "Turk" and Joyce A. Therkildsen Professor of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering. It comes one day after Iowa State officials announced the cancellation of university-sponsored spring break trips to Asia, Europe and Africa because of the potential travel disruptions caused by outbreaks of the 2019 novel coronavirus. Spring break is March 16-20.

The board's decision is based on guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) and applies to all three regent universities. The 30-day international travel ban could be extended or adjusted as conditions warrant and will be evaluated regularly with university leaders, board president Mike Richards said in a statement.

Faculty, staff and students already outside of the U.S. will be required to return only if they are in countries for which the CDC has issued a level 3 warning, which is a recommendation to avoid nonessential travel. Countries with level 3 warnings include China, South Korea and Italy, and ISU students studying in those nations previously were directed to return.

Wintersteen urged the ISU community to reconsider upcoming personal travel plans to regions impacted by COVID-19. The university strongly recommends avoiding personal  trips to countries with a level 4 risk assessment from the U.S. Department of State or a level 3 assessment from the CDC. What constitutes “university-sponsored international travel” is defined in the policy that requires ISU international travel to be registered with the risk management office.

Italy decision

The new travel restrictions this week follow a decision Feb. 28 to extend to Italy and South Korea a prohibition on university travel for students and employees previously in effect for China.

The 135 students across six study abroad programs who were spending the spring semester in Italy were notified that they were required to return to the U.S. by the end of this week. Iowa State is covering the additional cost students may incur to take an immediate flight home, such as an airline change fee. Six students studying in South Korea also were directed to return. Three students studying in China  returned from their programs when ISU restricted travel there in January. In total, about 400 ISU students were enrolled in study abroad programs this spring, Peters said.

Shaun Jamieson, ISU international risk analyst, said many students and their parents were relieved by the university's decision to halt the Italian study abroad programs. But for those frustrated, Peters said he can relate, both as the father of an ISU student planning to study abroad next spring and a former student.  

"Putting myself in the shoes of a 20-year-old, I'd probably be in a similar situation," Peters said.


Iowa State's decisions, like the regents', are rooted in guidance from the CDC and the IDPH, said Erin Baldwin, assistant vice president for student health and wellness and director of the Thielen Student Health Center (TSHC). For students who were in regions where COVID-19 outbreaks occurred, that guidance calls for 14 days of self-isolation upon returning to the U.S. Most students will go home during that time, but isolated campus housing is available for those who need it, Baldwin said. By March 4, two students who have returned were on campus, she said.

Baldwin said no students or employees have had known contact with COVID-19 or shown any symptoms. Isolated students are asked to take their temperature every day and check in with TSHC staff regularly. Recommended procedures don't call for proactive testing in the absence of symptoms.

It's critical to avoid stigmatizing students who were forced to cut their study abroad programs short, Baldwin said. If their isolation period passes without showing symptoms, they stand no greater risk of contracting the virus than the general public.

"Please show care and support to our community, including students and colleagues who have traveled to, or who are from, impacted regions and may be feeling particularly vulnerable," Wintersteen said in her email.

Courses continue

Some semester-length study abroad programs remain active in areas where spring break trips were canceled because there are different factors at play. Preventing trips that haven't begun makes sense in part because travel itself poses a threat for transmitting the virus, Jamieson said, and new travel restrictions could disrupt itineraries in unforeseen ways that could easily eliminate the benefit of a relatively short trip, typically 10 days long or less.

ISU officials are working on a program-by-program basis to provide continued coursework for students whose study abroad programs were interrupted, often in cooperation with the respective partner institutions. Peters said the academic impact is another reason to be more patient with longer programs, though safety remains the utmost concern.

"Three credits or one credit during spring break is a lot different than a whole semester's worth of credits," he said.

University officials will continue to monitor COVID-19 outbreaks. Updates and an FAQ are posted online. Additional travel restrictions may be needed, but it's too soon to tell how summer programs will be affected, Jamieson said. Peters said Iowa State remains committed to the value of studying abroad.

"It's one of the best ways for our students to develop a global perspective," he said.