Syracuse University student Eli Schwemler entered the courtyard of his school’s Florence, Italy, campus last week expecting a Q&A about the faraway threat of the coronavirus.
Instead, he and 341 classmates were told to pack their bags and leave the country.
“They gathered us all into a medium-sized room, looked at the entirety of us and realized it was too many people for the space. So they set up a PA system with microphones outside and led us there,” said Schwemler, 20, of Philadelphia to The Post.
“Students took their seats within the campus courtyard, and [higher-ups] finally made their statement — we had to leave the country within five days,” Schwemler said.
Panic and grief ensued, he said.
“Every student was surprised, and many cried or rushed to make hurried phone calls to their parents,’’ said the student at the upstate New York school.
“The teachers were astonished,’’ too, Schwemler said, adding that everyone was given masks at the Tuesday gathering. “Many began to sob.’’
A similar scenario has been playing out at various study-abroad campuses of American universities in Italy, where the coronavirus has sickened at least 1,128 people and killed 29 there, according to statistics from Johns Hopkins University.
Katelyn Johnson, 20, a sophomore studying at St. John’s University’s satellite campus in Rome, said that after the CDC on Friday started warning people to “avoid unnecessary travel’’ to Italy, her school, which is based in New York City, yanked the plug on its study-abroad program there, too.
Johnson said she was in Barcelona, Spain, at the time. She got the news by e-mail while at a nightclub.
“It was like, ‘Well, shoot, we’re in a different country, and now we have to get back to Italy’ ’’ to collect belongings, she told The Post.
“It was really scary, we didn’t even know if we were going to make it out of Spain.”
But she said nerves have been jittery over the deadly virus in Europe for awhile.
“I have a cough, and if I cough in public, everyone jumps and scatters, so I decided I’m going to start wearing a mask,” Johnson said last week, before getting evacuation orders.
Meanwhile, the changing nature of the situation is only adding to the students’ anxiety.
St. John’s at first sent an e-mail to the study-abroad students detailing how they would return to New York City to continue classes.
“Due to this change in guidance we are discontinuing academic programs on the Rome Campus until further notice,” the e-mail said.
But Johnson said, “Then they sent another one that said we all have to go to our homes and continue online.”
St. John’s is paying the costs of Johnson’s flight back to America and partially covering the cost of her room and board, she said.
As for Syracuse, Schwemler said, “The school didn’t have much information regarding academic credits, reimbursements or travels home.
“That information was to be figured out later. The priority was getting us to leave.’’
Syracuse students will not be allowed to return to their New York campus until after their spring break, a 14-day period consistent with the CDC’s quarantine guidelines.
They will then have the option to return and continue their studies in person and online to avoid disruption in credits.
“We believe this is absolutely necessary to reduce the risk of our students being unable to leave Italy due to Italian containment efforts,’’ wrote Steven Bennett, the school’s senior vice president for International Programs and Academic Operations, in a statement.
“We will do everything we can to minimize disruption to their academic studies and their lives.’’
For students such as Schwemler, who has already flown back to the US, the quick exit has led to feelings of an experience cut short.
“I had a really great internship’’ in Italy, he said.
Johnson, who is flying out Tuesday, said she would have preferred to brave the virus and stay in Italy.
“At this point, it just seems like I’m quarantined here or I’m quarantined there,” she said.
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