The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

SARS. It’s the acronym that defined the early 2000s. Short for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, it is a coronavirus that appeared in November 2002, spread from China to 28 countries, and had an impact on many industries.

In the education sector, it led universities to cancel their international programs. Under the headline “SARS Scare Cancels Asian Study Abroad,” Georgetown University’s Office of International Programs announced in the school’s newspaper on April 29, 2003, that it was withdrawing students studying in the major epicenters of the disease, including Hong Kong and three major cities in mainland China: Beijing, Nanjing, and Shanghai.

Fast forward nearly two decades and history is repeating itself. The outbreak of a new coronavirus called covid-19 is leading to event and program cancelations, travel curbs, and econo­mic slowdowns.

In late January, Georgetown asked three of its students study­­ing in Beijing to return to the United States. The school also placed a temporary ban on university-related travel to China.

It’s a move that educators at many institutions must consider, and one that can impact programs that rely on students from abroad. For professionals interested in pursuing a Master of Business Administration (MBA) or other advanced degree, covid-19 and future outbreaks could create obstacles. At the very least, during times of heightened precautions, the normal framework of such programs may have to be altered.

To find out what impact covid-19 is having, The ACCJ Journal spoke with some leading institutions just days before going to print. While the situation is rapidly evolving—and the details of actions and policies may change in the days and weeks to come—the information they shared sheds light on the potential disruption to education programs and how schools are adapting.

The first cases of covid-19 were reported on December 31 in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China. It was initially identified as pneumonia of unknown cause, and by January 3 the number of cases had grown to 44. Soon the virus began to spread to other parts of China and then the world. As of February 27, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) reported 81,109 confirmed cases globally, 78,191 of those in China. The virus has caused 2,718 deaths in China and 43 abroad.

The rapid pace of new infections has led schools in the region to take precautions.

“We have been updating our partner institutions and advising them on the situation at our campuses,” Kyoko Hayakawa said. She is managing director of the Business School Administration Office at Nagoya University of Commerce & Business (NUCB), which has campuses in Nagoya, Osaka, and Tokyo.

“A lot of the occurrences happening as a result of the covid-19 outbreak are echoes of March 2011,” she said, referring to the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami and the steps that were taken in the aftermath of the disasters. “For the time being, we can only remain informed on the situation, flexible on our policies, and vigilant about potentially putting our students and guests at risk,” she added.

Hayakawa said that NUCB, like many schools, has had to bar students from participating in classes and events if they had traveled to China—or were in contact with someone who had—in the two weeks prior. And some cases are more extreme. “One of our double-degree program students who went home to China for winter break has not been able to return to Japan.”

ESSEC students attend class for an Asia-focused Executive MBA in Singapore.

For most of the outbreak, it has been believed that the incubation period for the new coronavirus is about 14 days. However, reports from the Chinese provincial government suggest that it could be as many as 27 days. Other signs it may take longer than first thought include the case of a woman from Tochigi Prefecture who tested negative before disembarking the Diamond Princess cruise ship on February 19 but tested positive three days later.

At ESSEC Business School’s Asia–Pacific campus in Singapore, classes are continuing as usual, said Professor Aarti Ramaswami, the school’s deputy dean. “We have been able to have normal aca­demic life for the past four weeks—with little disruption—thanks to the continued efforts of our teams to control the situation and stay vigilant.”

In terms of local activities away from the Singapore campus—including visits to companies and student events that take place outdoors—ESSEC is reviewing each for continuation or cancellation on a case-by-case basis.

“We are fully compliant and in alignment with the advisories provided by Singapore’s Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education,” Ramaswami explained. “We keep our students, faculty, and staff fully informed of any new developments and offer the necessary psychological and logistical support as deemed necessary for the situation. And I want to thank all the frontline employees who have contributed their unwavering support and efforts to control the situation on campus.”

ESSEC has, for the time being, canceled study trips and official visits to China for students and employees, but “these have been either postponed or replaced with other local professional development and academic activities for students, depending on the program,” she said.

NUCB has also indefinitely postponed two study tours for overseas partner schools scheduled for February, but is working to ensure that students are still able to continue their programs.

Replacing usual plans and methods is sometimes a must, and Hayakawa said that online tools have played a role for NUCB. “One of our students from China had to give her thesis presentation and defense over Skype.”

Ramaswami said that ESSEC offers online accessibility to classes for those on a leave of absence or who have received a stay-home notice—something that is very useful for students who might be unable to come to campus.

ESSEC Business School has a Digital Campus that pro­vides a fully immersive team-learning experience, so “we are well equipped to provide—and already offer—online modules,” she said.

Online learning has been a growing part of many degree programs in recent years and helps busy professionals de­velop their careers by earning advanced degrees, such as an Executive MBA.

Asked if covid-19 might accelerate such options, Hayakawa said: “I think it’s safe to say that all institutions of higher edu­cation are doing their utmost to provide online learning opportunities whenever possible. The difficulty lies in provid­ing these oppor­tunities for the convenience of students without sacri­ficing the quality of the program, and there is very little room for experimentation.

“Class participation is a highly valued and major component of our MBA and Master of Science in Management programs, so we use the Zoom platform in our Online Studio classroom facility for offerings such as the Women’s Career Development program for new mothers on maternity leave.”

Zoom is an online meeting and video conferencing tool that facilitates collaboration and materials sharing—ideal for teaching as well as business.

Hayakawa notes that the Women’s Career Development program is a special certificate course designed for a specific purpose, “so it wouldn’t serve as a model for a long-term degree program by any means. But the outcomes of special online programs such as this are taken into consideration when we consider the possibilities we can explore using the Online Studio space.”

Whether learning takes place on campus or online, challenges will arise. What have administrators learned from the early days of the covid-19 outbreak that can help them mitigate the disruptions and be ready for future ones?

“It boils down to culture and capabilities, and these two dimensions of the organization are extremely interdependent,” Ramaswami said. “In any crisis situation, a supportive organi­zational culture is prepared for the psychological responses that one can expect from its various stakeholders—be it students, faculty, or staff—and be ready to offer the necessary support, whether psychological or logistical.

“Enabling and enforcing a data-driven, yet compassionate, problem-solving process is also key to remaining objective and making informed decisions. While such situations are thankfully rare, we are also very proud to have a great team that can mobilize itself rather quickly and support organizational efforts. It is indeed important to value and nurture this culture of responsiveness.”

Returning to the role of online learning, she said: “Beyond critical thinking in crisis situations, or decision-making under uncertainty, preparedness for online education is a great organi­zational capability to develop for faculty, staff, and students. This is not only to stay resilient and prepared for any future emergencies, should they arise, but it expands the possibilities for teaching and learning.”

NUCB held a three-day Big Data and Design Thinking class in January.

While covid-19 is rightfully causing concern around the world, it is important not to panic and to stay well informed. For anyone considering a program with study abroad elements, Hayakawa advises researching information from trusted sources such as the WHO. “But balance these reports with information directly gathered from sources on the ground,” she added, saying also that the thoughts of everyone at NUCB go out to their friends and colleagues in China, and to those around the world who have been affected by the crisis.

And Ramaswami, while remaining positive and optimistic, encourages everyone to continue to stay vigilant of potential symptoms, to stay away from social settings if they are feeling unwell, and to seek medical attention if needed.

“Being socially responsible, we should watch out for one another. If your friends, family members, or classmates are feeling unwell or showing symptoms of an illness, do advise them to stay at home. If they must go out, such as to see a doctor, encourage them to wear a mask to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.”

As with SARS (2002–05), bird flu (2003–07), swine flu (2009), and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (2012 to—well, it’s a coronavirus that’s still around), life and business will continue in the face of covid-19. How we react, the lessons we learn, and how we move forward will determine the impact on global business and our careers. 

Christopher Bryan Jones is Editor-in-Chief of The ACCJ Journal. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, he has lived in Japan since 1997.