By Graham Gold
The normally bustling streets of Florence were eerily quiet in early March as the beloved travel destination reeled from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Absent from iconic destinations like the Ponte Vecchio and the Duomo were the local residents who had been required to self-isolate, as well as throngs of American university students who had flocked to Florence for their study-abroad semesters.
Most of these American students had been recalled by their home institutions in the wake of warnings issued by U.S. authorities as the virus began its rapid and terrifying spread across Italy.
Several thousand American students arrived in Florence to study abroad for the spring 2020 academic semester. As the COVID-19 crisis quickly escalated in Italy in February, the students’ home universities grappled with the necessity and timing of suspending their Florence study programs. School administrators walked a fine line, trying to balance the competing interests of expectations of students enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime adventure abroad and legitimate health concerns of schools, parents, and students.
For many students, the end came suddenly on February 29, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a Level 3 advisory notice for Florence and all other areas of Italy outside the hardest hit northern region.
This advisory level had been pegged by many educational institutions as the point of no return — the time at which students would have to be recalled to the U.S. from their Florence study programs. Schools quickly advised their students to return home within days, upending expectations and many carefully-made plans.
The abrupt announcement that American students who had remained in Florence after an initial round of student departures earlier in February, hit many of the remaining students hard. For some, the semester abroad was the culmination of years of anticipation. Aysha Hoang, a 20 year old student from Emmanuel College in Boston, was devastated.
“Once I found out that my program was being suspended, I was so extremely heartbroken. There were so many emotions wrapped up in doing a once in a lifetime experience like study abroad that it was absolutely crushing to lose it all.”
Hashini Weerasekera, 20, a college Junior from Southern California who attends Chapman University, had arrived in Florence with high expectations. “I was so excited … I just knew this was going to be the most amazing semester of my life.”
While in Rome for program orientation, two tourists from Wuhan staying in her hotel were diagnosed with the first cases of COVID-19 in Italy, alarming many in her group. As the virus ramped up, she was concerned, but hopeful that she would be able to finish her semester abroad. “I was so upset and quite frankly a little worried for my own safety, but I didn’t really think our program would get cancelled.”
Hashini finished her coursework online while hoping that someday she’d be able to return to Florence to visit destinations she was unable to explore because of the abrupt departure. As residents of Florence face a daunting struggle to return to normalcy in the wake of the severe economic damage done by COVID-19, U.S. students who were prematurely deprived of their time there have a personal stake in the city’s recovery.
Vincenzo LoCricchio, 19, of Brooklyn, New York, voices a sentiment common to many of the recalled students, “I do want to return — to breathe in the magic that Florence breathes out.” Thousands of weary Florentines share that wish as they begin their own long journey back to the Florence they know and love.