It was a quiet Wednesday on Duke University’s East Campus in Durham, North Carolina, and things may stay that way for quite some time. With most students and faculty currently away from campus on Spring Break, the university’s president, Vincent Price, sent an announcement to the Duke community informing them that, due to concerns over coronavirus, the break would be extended an extra week until March 23, and that at its conclusion, “all undergraduate, graduate, and professional students who are currently out of town [...] should NOT return to the Duke campus if at all possible.” All on-campus classes, Price wrote, were to be suspended indefinitely, and that starting March 23, the university would “transition to remote instruction (video and other forms of delivery) for all undergraduate, graduate and professional schools.”
The prestigious private school, which has called Durham home since 1892, is but one of the many higher education institutions that have closed their doors to students in the past few days, as American public policy regarding the COVID-19 coronavirus has shifted from one of prevention to containment and mitigation. As of yesterday afternoon, there were an estimated 124,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide and 1,088 confirmed cases in the United States, and though the majority of domestic cases are concentrated in the Pacific Northwest, New York City, and the Bay Area, the prospect of students returning from potentially coronavirus-heavy areas presented a danger the Duke faculty was seemingly unwilling to consider. Citing recommendations from public health officials, Price wrote in his announcement, “The goal [of these measures] is to minimize situations in which members of our community might be exposed to those who have COVID-19, and to protect our students, faculty and staff who might be at elevated risk.”
On campus, the mood ranged from blissfully unaware to concern over the unintended consequences of such a policy. Gravel paths tracing the perimeter of the pastoral East Campus, characterized by its historic buildings and massive, leafy trees, remained a popular destination for locals looking for an appealing place to run, walk, or simply take in green space. “I feel like the population that would be out here walking or running aren’t gonna be as susceptible to getting the virus,” said one young woman named Britt, who had come to campus to walk her dog, Junebug, along with her friend Mel, who was joined by a boisterous puppy named Harper. Neither were affiliated with the university, and had both been unaware that Duke would be shuttering the doors of its classrooms and discouraging students from returning. As Junebug stopped to consider a copse of hedges, I asked the pair if they were concerned about coronavirus. They laughed, and said no.
To be fair, Duke’s campus seemed immaculate, devoid of clutter, and, as a university custodian named Anthony assured me, germs. “We have hand sanitizer, we have disinfectants, and right now, all the custodians are in each building wiping down everything that could possibly be touched,” said Anthony, who was sitting at the wheel of a one-seater mini-truck, taking a break from riding around campus collecting trash. After working at Duke for five years, he told me, he’s seen more on-campus commotion over the results of basketball games than from coronavirus. “I haven’t seen anybody panicked or upset or anything like that,” he said. “I think Duke has been pretty on top of things to protect the students as well as [employees].”
But while the university was well-equipped to prevent the physical spread of coronavirus on its grounds, the shift to online classes will, for many in the teaching staff, be a journey into the unknown. “Everyone’s really going to have to adjust on the fly,” said a Ph.D. candidate in Duke’s Humanities department who also works as a teaching assistant (she requested that I withhold her name because she hadn’t been cleared by her department to speak with the media on this matter). “Online teaching is a completely different form of pedagogy, and that’s not something that these classes were designed for,” she explained. “Duke doesn’t really offer online classes, so that’s something Duke faculty don’t generally already know how to do. No one really knows what’s going to happen.”
Additionally, she was concerned that the university's message to the students urging them to stay home might come as a shock. Prior to spring break and during the early stages of coronavirus hitting the U.S., attendance in the course she assists with had remained steady, and she sensed a prevailing attitude of unconcern among students. “I think a lot of [undergraduates] didn’t really understand the gravity of the situation” until they were told not to return to campus, she said.
Ten percent of the university’s undergraduates, as well as nearly one-third of its graduate students, come from outside of the country, with the largest share of international students come from China, where Duke also has a partnership with Wuhan University known as Duke Kunshan University. Based in the Eastern city of Kunshan and located about 40 miles from Shanghai, on January 25 DKU closed its campus to all nonessential personnel (Kunshan health authorities reported the first cases of coronavirus in the city three days later). By February 24, the school had shifted its 700-person, multinational student body to an online-only class format, offering refunds and credits to those who had already paid for lodging, and travel. “While these times are challenging, we are absolute in our resolve and are confident that the outcome will only strengthen DKU’s mission,” the school said in a statement on its website. DKU has not yet made a determination about when its campus will re-open.
In Durham, many international students opted to remain on campus during the break, including a first-year student from Vancouver who spoke with me as she walked back to her dorm, a freshly delivered sandwich from Subway in hand. “There’s limited access to a lot of school facilities and dining options,” she said, adding that after receiving the announcement from the administration, she’d begun making plans to travel back home.
While she’s not concerned about her safety on Duke's campus, “I’m worried about traveling” home to Canada, she told me. “I might catch [coronavirus] in the airport or airplane, and I’m worried that if I got it, I might infect my parents and my brother.” However, it was a risk she felt she needed to take, because though the message from Duke’s president indicated the school would support a “limited on-campus population,” she and her friends worry that an update to university policy could send everyone on campus packing. Indeed, just hours after the announcement was made, the World Health Organization officially classified coronavirus as a pandemic — a sign that the public health crisis presented by the virus is far from over. “We don’t quite know if we can stay here for the rest of the semester and do remote classes from our dorms,” she told me.
No matter what happens, she said, “Many of my friends from China are planning to stay in Durham, because they’re worried they might not be able to get back into the U.S.,” due to the Center for Disease Control’s ban on foreign nationals traveling from China into the United States. Because the University hasn’t yet said when it will return to holding in-person classes, “We can’t really go somewhere where we can’t get back from.”