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Saturday, March 2, 2024
The Observer

Two Saint Mary's students who opted to remain in Rome now living under lockdown

For weeks, they’ve been watching the world from their apartment window. Beneath them, the streets of Rome are empty, except for the rare passerby carrying groceries or walking a small dog.

Saint Mary’s junior Zoe Ricker and sophomore Sarah Tschida are two students who opted to remain in Rome when the College officially suspended the study abroad program. Ricker and Tschida signed a waiver stating their independence from the College in early March and have been living in the John Cabot student residences since then.

On March 9, Italy entered a nationwide lockdown, after the number of COVID-19 cases surpassed 9,000, banning all nonessential travel and large public gatherings. By March 11, all restaurants and bars were closed to the public.

Ricker and Tschida, the lone Saint Mary’s students remaining in Rome, have been sheltering in place, taking online classes through John Cabot and occasionally venturing out to the local grocery store. They cook traditional Italian dishes, share wine and each other’s company, and sketch the view out the window for art class.

It’s possible that the pair will still have to return to the U.S., Ricker said, though they would be forced to organize their own departure, as per the agreement waiving their ability to travel through Saint Mary’s.

“We're in it until at least April 3,” she said. “We’ll see what happens then, and then we're in it until May 9 when school is out. It's getting harder and harder to leave. We're just sticking to it. We're too far in.”

Despite hoping to remain in Rome for as long as possible, Ricker said she has felt some reservations about her decision to stay. If the lockdown is extended and her summer plans to travel with family are disrupted, regret will set in, she said.

“Until then, I think we're just we're taking it day by day,” Ricker said. “We have to keep going. It’s a lot of emailing, just staying in touch with everybody and just staying sane. Our ultimate conclusion is that it’s going to be worth it. We hope.”

Tschida said she has experienced the same sense of wavering since deciding to stay at John Cabot, even as the CDC raised the Level 2 safety regulations in Italy to Level 3, and other American students returned home. Initially, she considered it safer to remain in Rome, rather than board a long plane ride to an international airport.

“I feel like it changes every week honestly, and you’re always going to go back and forth like, ‘Is this the right decision?’ I don’t know,” Tschida said. “I was pretty confident with that decision, and then it just changed.”

Their situation will depend on the length of the lockdown, Tschida said.

“Now that the U.S. is level four, we’re afraid that because airlines are flying empty flights, they’re not going to have as many flights out,” she said. “We might be stuck here.”

If the two are forced to stay into the summer months, John Cabot has agreed to extend their housing.

Ricker said her emotions change day to day, as she watches more and more students return home.

“It’s been stressful,” she said. “People are still leaving. Today [Tschida] and I were trying to look at where to get more suitcases for when we do have to go in May — or if we need to go sooner than that for any other reason. And they’re really expensive. Like hundreds of dollars through Amazon. I think they’re upping in the prices.”

The Italian locals never seemed to truly panic, Ricker said, even as restrictions on travel and congregating settled over the usually bustling city.

“The grocery store is stocked full — people aren’t panic buying here in Rome,” Ricker said. “It really hasn’t been terrible. It’s just been kind of sad, and it’s emptier, like there’s just less and less people. Students really were just sad and distressed because they were slowly getting told that they had to go home.”

In the first few days after most Saint Mary’s students returned to the U.S., Ricker said the city operated normally. She and Tschida paid a visit to the Vatican and were joined by other tourists, though she noted the site was less packed than usual.

There has been a police presence on the streets since even before the official lockdown, Ricker said, though the officers were mostly patrolling to enforce appropriate social distancing. One day, while sitting on the steps of a piazza, an officer approached Ricker.

“The police came up to us and they told us to disperse because we were in a group of four and they were not okay with that,” she said.

After the lockdown, Ricker and Tschida have interacted with the police several other times, especially when walking to the grocery store. John Cabot has provided its students with paperwork intended to act as certification for approved travel, and Ricker said she has had to present these papers while walking to the store.

“You sign it and then if somebody stops me, they sign it too,” she said. “We just keep it on us. It’s kind of scary being given that and told that, but for the most part, it’s been okay. We did get stopped today again. I think he could tell we were foreign; we’re both young.”

John Cabot has offered to deliver groceries to its students, but Ricker said she enjoys doing her own shopping because it gives her something to do in the midst of the lockdown. The University is also providing a host of activities for students who are under lockdown, including online cooking classes.

Because the waiver Ricker and Tschida signed released Saint Mary’s from all liability, they and their families are barred from suing the College should they test positive for COVID-19.

“I release from liability and waive my right to sue Saint Mary’s College, their employees, officers, volunteers and agents … from any and all claims, including claims of the College’s negligence, resulting in any physical injury, illness (including death) or economic loss that I may suffer or which may result from my decision to remain in Rome,” the waiver states. “I, individually and on behalf of my heirs and assigns, agree to indemnify the College and hold it harmless from and against all liability, losses, damages, claims, liens and expense (including reasonable legal fees) arising out of or connected with my decision to remain in Rome.”

Despite having claimed their independence, Ricker and Tschida said they have maintained a relationship with their professors.

“We’re still their students,” Ricker said. “I’m emailing my professor right now about advanced registration for classes for my major. I’ve had plenty of professors check in — I’ve even had one DM me on Instagram. Everybody has been reaching out.”

The College has been checking in on all of those who were part of the Rome program; however, they have yet to contact Ricker and Tschida individually and inquire about their status, Tschida said.

“Saint Mary’s officially suspended all the programs abroad, but we continue to care for all our Saint Mary’s Belles,” director of the Center for Women’s Intercultural Leadership Mana Derakhshani said in an email. “They are still covered by the insurance we had purchased for them and continue their coursework online at the institutions where they were studying abroad. I am sure they are all trying their best to get the most out of the experience in very challenging circumstances.”

Saint Mary’s administrators trust their partner institutions in all study abroad locations to take “good care of [the] students” during the COVID-19 pandemic, Derakhshani said.

Every day, the students receive the same email detailing emergency protocols should they start showing symptoms of coronavirus.

“If you start showing symptoms, they want you to self-isolate completely,” Ricker said. “Don't go anywhere, and call the hospital.”

Sophomore Nadia Hartman also signed the original waiver opting to remain in Rome but chose to return to the U.S. at the last minute.

“A few days after I signed, however, my grandmother passed away and I decided that I needed to come home for the funeral and be with my family during my spring break,” Hartman said in an email.

There was no screening process in place at any of the airports Hartman visited upon arrival, and when she contacted the CDC with questions, she was instructed to quarantine at home for a few days before returning to normal, as long as she didn’t display symptoms during that time.

“My intention was to return to Rome after my spring break, but Italy shortly went on lockdown after my arrival and the travel bans went up, preventing me from returning,” Hartman said. “While I would absolutely love to return to Rome this semester, I am increasingly doubtful that this will be possible. With the way things are and the way things are heading, I do not think that the borders will open up in time for the end of the semester.”

Hartman said she was disappointed to be barred from returning to Rome, but she hopes the health and safety measures put in place are effective in slowing the spread of the virus and flattening the curve.

“In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy being with my family and doing all the things at home that I would otherwise not have the opportunity to do,” she said.

In Valparaiso, Ind., Hartman and her family are sheltering in place, though essential travel is allowed.

Those who are in Rome remain calm and organized, Ricker said, as many have agreed to abide by the restrictions imposed by the Italian government and the CDC.

Though the streets of Rome are “dauntingly empty,” and will remain that way for some time, they are filled with music, Ricker said.

“A lady across the way opened her window and played guitar and sang a song,” she said. “We've gone on a few, you know, forbidden walks, and you hear people singing, playing guitar. It’s all in Italian. It’s beautiful.”