Coronavirus: students return home to UAE as universities abroad shut down

Students at American, British and European universities face months of online learning and exam uncertainty

Emiratis and expats studying abroad have begun to return home and face months of online learning and exam uncertainty due to the coronavirus outbreak.

On Tuesday, Ministry of Education and the National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority advised students studying abroad to immediately return to the Emirates in the event their school campuses’ are shut down or the UAE mandates the return of Emiratis.

Authorities said returning students should undergo distance learning online from the UAE “for a temporary period, or up until the end of the current semester or academic year”.

The notice from the authorities said Emirati students who have returned to the UAE not to travel again “under any circumstances.”

Thousands of international students who call the UAE home have already left courses mid-semester as campuses closed in the United States, United Kingdom and Europe.

Students who are UAE residents hope online coursework will prepare them for summer exams. Many are also trying to claw back thousands of dollars, pounds and euros spent on accommodation, meal plans and other expenses.

What's most important right now is to stay calm and support each other

Many said they do not expect to be back at university until autumn. According to Unesco, more than 11,200 Emiratis and expats studied abroad in 2017, the most recent year for which figures are available.

Rahul Menon, 18, a first year computer engineering student at Virginia Tech, returned home to his family home in Dubai on Friday.

He was on holiday in the UK for the spring break when his campus and dormitory was shut until further notice.

“I am not sure how the university is going to conduct these online classes, as there are courses that solely rely on group work and in-lab procedures," said Mr Menon, who is from India and has UAE residency visa.

"I have to be in lab for some classes. I had a return ticket from the UK to the US but there’s no reason for me to go back at this point. I’ve lost $300 on the ticket.”

Mr Menon paid his university $2,500 for housing and $1,900 for a meal plan per semester. He does not expect the university to reopen this academic year and hopes to be compensated for some of what he paid.

Visa restrictions were brought in last week to limit the number of visitors coming into the country from high-risk areas. Students who qualify for visa-on-arrival - from the UK, Europe and Australia for example - or have a valid UAE residence visa, can return without issue.

Expat children no longer sponsored by their families, or from countries that without visa-on-arrival such as India and Pakistan, may face restrictions.

Northeastern University sophomore Philip Thomas, of Hamden, Conn., front, pulls a cart of belongings as he moves out of his residence hall as classmate Jarrett Anderson, of Las Vegas, left, assists him, Sunday, March 15, 2020, in Boston. Students have been asked by the school to move out of residence halls out of concern about the spread of the coronavirus. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Simone Noorali, 19, an Australian in her first year at University of Pennsylvania, was due to return to Dubai Tuesday to start her online courses. She can get visa on arrival.

“I was at Disney World Orlando when this news unfolded, turning my relaxing holiday into a logistical nightmare," she said.

"What’s most important right now is to stay calm and keep useful communication channels open to support each other and keep fear and chaos at bay."

Aditya Rathi, 18, from India, also studies at University of Pennsylvania and decided to stay with friends in the US instead of returning to Dubai.

“I’m afraid that if Dubai or the US stops flights, I won’t be able to come back," he said.

"And if it’s live online classes, the time zones would make it so I’m attending classes all night and sleeping all day, which is a nuisance for everyone.”

Paramjai Sandhu, 19, is in his first year studying business at Northeastern University in Boston. As an Indian citizen who is no longer sponsored by his family in Dubai, he will travel to India to stay with relatives, until visa restrictions are lifted.

“I highly doubt we’ll go back to physical classes anytime soon, but my professors have fully accommodated the online shift,” he said.

He also hopes to see some sort of refund once the crisis is over.

"I pay $1,360 for meals and $1,500 for housing per month. But my family is fine with it as they’d rather have me back home where it’s safe," he said.