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Intern shortage looms for Congress as California school suspends program

The University of California Washington Program (UCDC) is calling off its upcoming spring quarter, effective March 20, amid growing fears of the coronavirus epidemic. Many of the program’s more than 200 students intern on Capitol Hill for members of California’s congressional delegation.

“Semester students will need to make plans to return to California no later than March 20,” UCDC Executive Director Helen Shapiro said in a letter to students posted on the program’s website. “And sadly, we must cancel the spring term.”

California Rep. Eric Swalwell, a former intern, called the decision “heartbreaking,” and said his office will try to work with any affected students back in his district to “salvage the experience,” as much he can.

“It’s a big deal to get hired as an intern on the Hill. For a lot of people, especially those who, frankly, don’t have connections to anyone important, they worked hard to get an internship like this, [which] is a foot in the door,” the Democrat said. Swalwell added that he has not been in touch with anyone from the program but has been working closely with his intern coordinator.

UCDC isn’t the only program recalling its interns. The Notre Dame Washington Program, which shares buildings and classes with UCDC, informed students Tuesday morning that they “should return to their home campus immediately,” according to Shapiro. Other schools, including UC Berkeley and UC San Diego, are moving their classes online and asking students not to return from spring break.

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Michael T. Brown, UC’s head of academic affairs, made the decision after consulting with Janet Napolitano, UC president and former secretary of Homeland Security under President Barack Obama.

Brown acknowledged that UCDC’s student population is “not at high risk (unless there are underlying health conditions),” but the school is concerned that should a student test positive for COVID-19, the program would “have limited ability to isolate that individual or to quarantine others, as needed.”

Rep. Mark Takano, a California Democrat, said that while he isn’t sure if he currently has any UCDC interns, his office is telling all junior staff and interns to stay home beginning Wednesday.

Meanwhile, another California Democrat, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, learned of the UCDC program closure from a Roll Call reporter Tuesday afternoon.

“Oh really? I didn’t know that,” she said.

When asked about a potential scramble for interns, she said: “That’s news to me. Things are moving fast.”

Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.

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