The Pontifical North American College on the Janiculum Hill overlooking St. Peter's Square is seen Aug. 28, 2019. (CNS photo/Cindy Wooden)
The Pontifical North American College on the Janiculum Hill overlooking St. Peter's Square is seen Aug. 28, 2019. (CNS photo/Cindy Wooden)
ROME — Amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, the Pontifical North American College has ordered its students to return to the United States by the end of this week.

A student of the North American College (NAC), who did not wish to be identified, told Catholic News Agency that both houses of the college – the seminary and Casa Santa Maria – were informed following that evening’s dinner they would have to depart campus and return home.

Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler (TX) confirmed with CNA that he was told on Sunday that everyone at the college would be sent home. The seminarians from Strickland’s diocese studying at the NAC had returned to the United States earlier in March.

Posts on social media from seminarians also confirmed the school had decided to send all students back to the U.S.

Father Peter Harman, rector of the college, confirmed to CNA via email March 23 that the decision to send students home had been made “in consultation with” the seminary’s board of governors. He said that about 20 or so students would be staying at the seminary with the faculty as they are unable to get home or would not have a place to self-quarantine.

Father Harman said everyone will undergo a 14 day quarantine after returning home and their studies will continue through the means established by their individual universities.

“We made this decision for their safety, thinking that being in smaller groups at home would be safer than one large campus, not being able to assure direct health care here for the indefinite future,” he said. “We still have everyone healthy, and would rather undergo this convenience than jeopardize their health.”

The announcement to the seminarians at the NAC that they were being sent home was made verbally, and students were told the school would not be providing a written statement.

The NAC is located in Rome and was created to train American seminarians. It also houses priests who are in the city pursuing graduate work or continuing formation programs.

“We were surprised that this news came,” the student told CNA.

“We anticipated a possible curtailment of staff or a rationing of food, or a consolidation of houses, but we didn’t expect being sent home so immediately, especially considering the current situation in America.”

He said he and his fellow students “were not given any assistance with travel” as typically the sponsoring diocese makes those arrangements.

On March 4, the NAC wrote on its Facebook page that along with all other universities in Italy, classes at the school would be suspended due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“The seminarians plan to continue in residence at the College. During this time the in-house formation program will continue with supplemental periods for prayer, recreation, and study,” they said. Roughly half of the NAC’s students opted to return to the United States at that time. Throughout the month of March, the NAC had regularly posted updates and assurances that they were prepared to safely ride out the quarantine in Italy.

The student said the instruction to leave was “a shock,” and he questioned the wisdom of sending the healthy student body to airports where they may contract COVID-19.

Presently, the only direct flight still operating between Rome and the United States is between Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport (FCO) and New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK).

“It doesn’t help that FCO and JFK are places where this disease can spread, whereas the NAC and Casa (Santa Maria) are currently virus-free,” the student said. He said that, to the best of his knowledge, everyone associated with the NAC “is in good health,” and that there is “no indication anything is wrong.”

The decision to close the school and return students to the United States, at a time where multiple states have ordered their populations to “shelter in place” due to fear of the virus, made the student feel “confused and upset.” Italy has been under a similar lockdown for nearly two weeks.

“This decision should have been made two weeks ago, or not at all. Those who have decided to stay have made a commitment to stay, with the understanding that traveling at this time would increase the risk of infection, spreading it to others, or causing alarm,” he said.

“We who stayed have been in a safe, contained environment, understanding that the condition may require us to make sacrifices regarding food, filling in for absent personnel, etc.”

He did not understand why he was now being instructed to leave, “putting ourselves and others at a greater risk of catching this virus and forcing our dioceses to find places for us to ‘self-quarantine.’”

He told CNA that he will be back in the United States later this week.

Alan Holdren contributed to this report.