WASHINGTON — The George Washington University campus and surrounding neighborhoods buzzed this week with students rushing to classes. It was a couple of days before spring break, and they were finishing tests, catching up with friends and packing.
For most, the packing and goodbyes would be for much longer than they had anticipated days earlier.
The university, with a downtown campus blocks away from the White House, is one of the hundreds across the country suspending face-to-face instruction and moving most of its classes online in an attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus. George Washington’s spring break starts next week, and the university administration has told students to move out of the dorms by March 21. Classes will be online until at least April 5.
Across the country, the normal giddiness of upcoming vacations and stress over midterms has been mostly replaced with the anxiety of how to deal with the coronavirus. On every block in this college town, people were discussing the virus and how they would deal with it.
It was a final rush of activity before college students largely disappear, perhaps for months.
Talia Pfeffer, a George Washington junior studying psychology, is still trying to figure out what that means for her. On Thursday morning, the wheels of her purple suitcase clattered along the sidewalk as she headed to the airport. Miami is home, and she is unsure how long she’ll be there. She, like many students interviewed by USA TODAY, wasn’t sure how well her classes would translate to the digital space.
College is also a social time for many, and Pfeffer was concerned about her friendships. She had been set to celebrate her 21st birthday later this semester at Nellie’s, a popular dance hall in the city. She wondered: Would she have a chance to see her friends again, especially the seniors about to finish their studies?
That’s anyone’s guess right now.
Nearly 2,200 people have been infected in the United States, and 47 people have died, according to figures tracked by Johns Hopkins University. And colleges and universities largely have decided on their own, not at the government’s direction, to halt in-person classes.
For some universities, the switch to online instruction could last just a few weeks. Other universities, such as George Washington and nearby Georgetown University, have instructed students to move out of the dorms.
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The move to online courses means big changes for Daniel Hines, 34, who studies acting at George Washington. Some of the performances his class was scheduled to give had to be moved or canceled. Online instruction will involve filming himself, he said — not exactly the same as performing live. Still, his concerns are more far-reaching.
“I am worried about the global impact.”
Outside Thurston Hall, a George Washington dorm designated for first-year students, students hauled luggage and boxes full of their clothes and other dorm room supplies to idling vehicles. For some, returning home might be a car ride away, but for Karim Thabet, a first-year student, it means international travel. He is from Egypt, and his parents want him to return.
“They want me home so they feel safer,” he said Thursday.
He is studying economics and plays squash, which is part of the reason he came to America. While fiddling with his carry-on sized suitcase, he said he wasn’t sure if and when he would return, given travel restrictions to the U.S. He was also apprehensive about online courses, which he has never tried, and which he thinks will be difficult to handle. Many students told USA TODAY they feared studying across time zones would be unwieldy.
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Ezzy Makh, a junior, met her parents outside her dorm on Thursday. They had driven from Maryland to pick her up, and her mother, Vero Debsia, said she would be happy to have her daughter home, though she felt the university might be overreacting.
Makh said she felt the university’s response might have come too late. Why weren’t officials quicker, she asked, to stop holding events? And they could have put more hand-sanitizing stations in place, she suggested.
“It’s a big inconvenience for us,” she said. Still, “I know they’re just trying to help.”
Across the city, Georgetown University was on spring break, but the campus still had some signs of life Thursday as people milled across campuses and athletes practiced. (The NCAA recently canceled the men and women’s Division I basketball tournaments and other winter and spring championships. ) The university is also moving its classes online starting Monday. And it has encouraged students to “return to their permanent addresses.”
That isn’t in the cards for Damare Baker, a junior, who lives in university housing across the street from the campus.
She is from Mississippi and lacks the resources to book a trip home and back on an undetermined timeline. So she asked the university to let her stay put for the time being.
“I am a first-generation college student,” she said Thursday. “Being on campus is important because many of us don’t have internet at home. We don’t have the funds to buy plane tickets to go home, especially since we don’t know when we’re going to be able to come back.”
As far as the coronavirus itself, she said she isn’t too worried and has been diligent about washing her hands.
Back at George Washington, Evelina Veguilla and Leigh Purrington, both 19, discussed what the rest of their semester would look like. They talked about canceled spring break trips, and they wondered how well their professors would be able to transition their classes online. The private university, they said, was expensive to attend, and in-person classes and an on-campus experience is what they had signed up for. After all, Purrington said, there were plenty of online-only schools she could have attended.
Local businesses that rely on university traffic were also feeling the effect of the coronavirus anxiety. Reiter’s Books, a store that sells a mix of textbooks and other literature near George Washington, was empty around the lunch hour Thursday. Normally, there would have been hardly a free table in the sitting area. People would be lined up around the store for coffee.
Josue Ayala, a longtime employee at the store, said he wondered whether the news media was partly to blame for stoking concerns about the virus. He wasn’t sure, he said, if the business could continue to take a sustained hit.
That concern will be tested in real time: Online classes at George Washington could extend beyond April 5, if the virus continues to spread.
Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.