“We’re not going to Rome!” was the cry heard from several students sitting in the back of the Audi-Max classroom in the Gaming Kartause on Feb. 26. From that point on, the message that the long-awaited Rome and Assisi 10-day trip had been cancelled spread fast, almost as fast as the virus that stopped it.
For the first time in 28 years, the iconic trip to Rome and Assisi trip built into the Austria Program itinerary was torn out of the schedule due to a new virus that originated in China, the COVID-19 coronavirus.
From China, the coronavirus made its way to Italy, exploded overnight and is currently spilling its way across Europe, requiring travelers to take many precautionary measures. The plans of students in Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program have been particularly affected.
“(The Austrian government is) taking a very aggressive approach to minimize any chance of what we call a communal spread,” said Tom Wolter, the director of the Austria Program.
Wolter explained that if the school had still gone to Italy and any student or staff member had come down with a fever, specialists from Vienna would have taken the affected individual to be tested for the virus. The rest of the Kartause would be under close watch.
Wolter said that if a test came back positive for the coronavirus, the whole Kartause — campus, hotel and restaurant — would be closed for a minimum of three weeks and everyone would be quarantined during that time. If a second case was found, the quarantine would possibly be extended through the rest of the semester.
There are more cases that were contracted by people who went to Italy than those who had contracted it communally, Wolter said. “Having that kind of distinction helps guide us to making the (travel decisions), because if the majority of the cases are from those who went to Italy or came from Italy and not being spread communally, that reduces the chance or the risk of anyone else catching it,” he said.
Despite the cancellation, students responded gracefully to the sudden change in itinerary.
“I understand and respect their decision on not taking us to Rome and Assisi. It is not Franciscan’s fault at all … It is the coronavirus,” said junior Jackie Kamis.
Sophomore transient Clare Kearns from Hillsdale College said, “I was definitely surprised, but I figured that since it was such a last-minute decision, they definitely had a good reason for it, so I wasn’t upset about it.”
To make up for the cancellation of the trip, the students were given two options: an extended, all-expense paid Poland trip or a 17-day trip toward the end of the semester.
For the Poland trip, an extra day would be added and the university would cover the costs using the Rome and Assisi funds, said Brian Kissinger, director of student life at the Kartause.
The 17-day option consisted of adding seven extra days before the independent 10-day trip already planned for the end of the semester.
Kissinger said the extended Poland option would provide more travel weekends and the students would get money back to go on those trips. While the 17-day option would provide students more time to travel, it would cost more out of the students’ pockets.
“It would be my dream come true to do a 17-day, but at the same time … I’m more concerned about it financially. But if I can make it work I will,” Kamis said, before the vote took place.
“I like the idea of 17 free days to plan, but I also know that’s a big time away. I think it might, in the end, be better for me to have the Poland trip be free,” said Kearns.
The 17-day trip won the students’ vote, but they still got the best of both worlds. Poland will still be paid for and students will still receive some money for their 17-day trip. The school will also provide a trip for the first seven days of the 17.
Wolter said that one possibility for the 17-day could be a “Super Trip” to Rome and Assisi. “If there is the interest from the student body and the risk is drastically reduced … we can make it happen,” he said.
Commenting on the students’ attitude, Kissinger said, “I’ve been amazed by the response of the students and families that I’ve heard from. I couldn’t have imagined this ever happening.”
Regardless of the threat of the virus, students have refused to let this ruin their semester and continue to be grateful as they enter the unknown of an Austrian semester unlike any other.