BLACKSBURG — Yipin Zhou gathered a dozen students at an industrial warehouse here late Wednesday night.
For months, the Virginia Tech engineering students have been working on a robot for a global competition set to take place in China in August. While hopeful the spread of a new coronavirus first discovered there won’t cancel the contest, their more immediate concern is what will happen in Blacksburg. Hours before, Tech announced it would ban all in-person classes.
“We were kind of expecting this to happen, because it will actually help, we saw from the Chinese policies,” Zhou, 22, said, referring to citywide quarantines there.
Could they continue to work together in the machine shop? How would university healthcare insurance work if they contract the virus here? Should they fly back home to China?
As Tech and Radford became the latest universities in Virginia to shift classes online, the full implications of the decision are reverberating across campuses, particularly for international students, many of whom have remained on the Blacksburg campus over spring break.
The universities are extending their current spring breaks one week, to give students, faculty and staff breathing room before embarking on an unprecedented experiment in online-only teaching. College officials nationwide are urging people to stay home, in attempts to halt the spread of the disease COVID-19, which can be deadly for the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions.
“Extraordinary times, extraordinary circumstances,” Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski said of some of the disruptive moves, including cancellations of large-scale events. “Those are things public health officials are saying we can’t do, and that boils down to a lecture hall class, a dining facility, those kinds of things.”
Owczarski said officials will have more information early next week about many of the financial implications of the decisions, such as reimbursements for housing costs and dining fees.
“My initial shock is that this happened so fast,” said Colleen McNickle, president of the Student Government Association at Radford University, who is weighing whether to return to Radford next month to continue her on-campus jobs.
“Will the school refund their dining plans? Will the school refund their housing fees?” said Jianuo Huang, president of the Virginia Tech Association of Chinese Students and Scholars. “There’s no clue.”
On Thursday afternoon, June Sinlapanuntakul gazed out on Tech’s Drillfield, normally empty over spring break.
“The campus is going to be like a ghost town,” he said.
Before the outbreak in December, Sinlapanuntakul, 18, said he was planning to return to his native Thailand over the summer. Now, he’s not sure how the rest of the semester will pan out.
“I called all my friends saying, ‘Dude, what’s your plan? What are you going to do?’” he said. “Just imagine a music major. How do you play an instrument online?”
Sinlapanuntakul said a friend who just got back to campus from India is planning to return right back home. As he spoke, a face mask dangled below his chin.
“In Asian countries we wear masks to protect ourselves,” he said. “But here, they just assume people wearing masks have the disease or something.”
Huang said many students from China are more concerned about the virus itself than the disruption caused by university decisions. A native of Wuhan, where the virus was first detected, Huang thinks the U.S. is facing what China was a few months ago at the outset of an outbreak there. He and others believe measures like quarantines are vital to public health.
Yibo Zheng, who graduated from Tech recently and is involved in the robotics team, said he and his roommate change out of all their clothes when they enter their house, put them in garbage bags and spritz them with an alcohol solution.
Several members of the robotics team went to Kroger recently and bought two weeks’ worth of food.
Zhou, president of the RoboGrinder group, said he plans to hole himself in his Blacksburg townhouse and do online courses from there. Zhou said the team would probably be forced to continue work on the robot individually, and remotely. They recently bought a forehead thermometer and have tested teammates’ temperatures with it three times daily.
“If they found one case at Virginia Tech, should you and I talk, face-to-face?” Zhou said to a team member on Thursday. “Probably not.”
Staff writer Sam Wall contributed to this report.