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Why UVA joined scores of other colleges in asking students to stay off campus

As the U.S. novel coronavirus outbreak worsens, colleges and universities around the country are asking students to stay off campus -- and essentially shutting down. Though some classes are migrating online, the closures may still represent a hardship for students who rely on school for housing, meals and other services. Amna Nawaz talks to James Ryan, president of the University of Virginia.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the worries over the spread of the coronavirus grow, there's an ever-widening list of workplaces, gatherings and major events that are being canceled or changed significantly.

    That's included political rallies, major auto shows, tech conferences, St. Patrick's Day parade, and big concerts like Coachella. Colleges and universities around the country are essentially closing down their buildings to students, and asking them to stay off campus.

    Amna Nawaz looks at what plans are being made, and the difficult situation some students, parents and colleges are facing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, the list of schools asking students to stay away or leave campus is growing.

    Already, close to 100 institutions, including Harvard, MIT, Indiana University, Pennsylvania State, and California State universities, have taken such measures. The University of Virginia announced today it will move all classes online beginning March 19.

    James Ryan is president of the University of Virginia, and he joins me now from Charlottesville, Virginia.

    Mr. Ryan, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    I want to ask you, because you have been issuing pretty regular updates about how your school is assessing the threat for several weeks now. The last one you issued before today's was March 8. That was three days ago.

    So, what changed between then and now that led you to take this extreme measure?

  • James Ryan:

    Yes, thanks, and thanks for having me.

    We continued to watch the progression of the virus, the spread, nationally, internationally and in Virginia.

    And I spoke more with our medical experts. And we realized that we had a sense of urgency, given that our students are currently away on spring break, and have traveled across the country, and some have traveled internationally. And we thought now is a time to act, while we could.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, you said you spoke with your medical experts.

    Where are you sort of getting most of the information on which you're relying for this? Are you talking to federal authorities, state authorities?

  • James Ryan:

    All of the above.

    And one of the great things about universities is that we also have a lot of expertise within our midst. So we have medical experts and public health experts.

    And putting all of this together, they have told us, this is likely to get worse before it gets better, and that we have the opportunity to slow the spread of the virus and to protect the health and well-being of our community, which includes not just students, but also faculty and staff and our Charlottesville neighbors, and also to avoid the risk of overwhelming our health system.

    So, all those factors combined made us realize that now is the time to act.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I should ask. You have got over 20,000 students in the student body. Is that correct?

  • James Ryan:

    That's correct, yes, undergraduates and graduates.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes, a third of those full-time undergrads are on some kind of need-based financial aid.

    The question of whether to stay away, whether to leave campus and go to another place, that's not the same for every student. I'm wondering how you're going to handle students who don't have the kind of elasticity to make those decisions, who may not have a safer place to go where there's shelter and food, as there is on your campus.

  • James Ryan:

    Yes, that's an excellent question.

    And one thing that we need to make absolutely clear is that we're strongly encouraging to return home, if they can. But we recognize that some students can't return home, either because their homes or their countries aren't safe or because they face particular hardships.

    So our university is remaining open, and our dorms will remain open because we recognize, for some students, they have no other place to go, and the last thing we would do is turn them away.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You mentioned in your latest statement there is no road map for something like this.

  • James Ryan:

    No.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That UVA has never encountered anything like this.

  • James Ryan:

    Right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Pretty much every institution in America is now grappling with these same sets of decisions.

    You haven't had a confirmed case on campus or in your community, yet you chose now to make this decision. What advice do you have to other leaders out there who are trying to figure out when or if to do a similar thing?

  • James Ryan:

    Well, I would be reluctant to offer advice, because I'm far from an expert on this.

    But I will tell you that, for our own decision-making, a big factor was the fact that our students are on spring break now. And so we had the opportunity to make a decision before they returned to campus, and returned to campus after traveling far and wide, therefore increasing the risk that one or more of them would come back with the virus.

    And I think, for anyone, they have to pay attention closely to local conditions. Not all universities are in the same position as ours. One of the big things that we took into account is the fact that we have a health system that is also a level one trauma center.

    And we need to make sure that they're capable of treating those who are very sick and make sure that their resources are focused on those.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is James Ryan, president of the University of Virginia.

    Thanks for being with us tonight.

  • James Ryan:

    Thanks for having me.

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