Tiananmen Square

Zhengyang Gate is one of the sites at Tiananmen Square in China that is temporarily closed off to the public due to Coronavirus concerns.

On Tuesday evening, Texas A&M University’s Office of Ethics and Compliance sent out a campus-wide email informing the community that all university-sponsored travel to China has been suspended for undergraduate students in the wake of the spreading coronavirus outbreak.

This email comes after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, via the U.S. Department of State, released a level 3 travel advisory which advises U.S. citizens to reconsider travel to China.

“Travel to China is considered high risk and no precautions are available to protect against the identified increased risk,” the email read. “Faculty, staff and graduate researchers are urged to give serious evaluation before requesting travel to China as it will require pre-approval and only be granted for essential travel.”

There have been over 6,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in China, and approximately 132 people have died as of Wednesday evening, according to an article by the Washington Post. There have been 68 reported cases of the virus outside of China, including five confirmed in the United States. However, no person-to-person spread of the virus has yet occurred in the U.S., according to the CDC.

Vice Provost and Chief International Officer Michael Benedik, Ph.D., said this decision was ultimately straightforward, and many other schools around the nation are making similar decisions.

According to the Washington Post the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and George Washington University make up a few of the universities that have advised their students to avoid travel to China. Some high-profile companies, such as Facebook and Microsoft, have also suspended employee travel to China, with Ford Motor Co. completely banning employee travel to, from and within China, according to CNN.

Benedik said undergraduate students are suspended from travel in accordance to University Rule 3.1, which prohibits university-sponsored travel to places that are on the Travel Advisory List.

“In compliance with [Rule 3.1] we do not send undergraduate students where there is a travel warning,” Benedik said. “We let [graduate students and faculty] make educated decisions and they have to get approval that this is critical for them and that they understand the safety concerns they are going into.”

Benedik said graduate students and faculty members are excluded from this because they may be completing research that requires them to visit the area.

“There are certainly reasons why we would permit graduate students or faculty members to visit these locations,” Benedik said. “They may be researching pandemic diseases or they may be working on a long term research project where missing a year could kill 15 years of data collection.”

This suspension will put a number of study abroad trips on hold. A&M is the No. 1 U.S. public institution of higher education to send students abroad, according to the 2019 Institute of International Education Open Doors report. A&M has several university-sponsored programs and faculty-led trips that occur each fall, spring and summer semester. However, Benedik said the Education Abroad office is working to help students who have already established plans to visit China.

“The Education Abroad office is fully engaged in this,” Benedik said. “They know what is going on, and they are the ones that can help students make their decisions.”

Kevin McGinnis, the chief risk, ethics and compliance officer for A&M, said this is not a system-wide travel suspension, but other campuses within the Texas A&M University System will most likely follow suit.

The university is unaware when this travel suspension will be lifted as it is reliant on when China is taken off of the Travel Advisory List. However, McGinnis said the university has no right to monitor independent travel and cannot prevent individuals from traveling to China for reasons not affiliated with university-sponsored work or education.

“We currently do not have any right to monitor somebody’s travel if they’re doing it on their own time,” McGinnis said. “At that point, we rely on the State Department and returning under their guidance.”

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