Classroom Technology

SXSW EDU Canceled Due to Coronavirus Threat, AERA Goes Virtual; Other Ed. Conferences Uncertain

By Michelle R. Davis — March 02, 2020 7 min read
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UPDATE, March 7:

The SXSW EDU conference has been canceled amid concerns about the ongoing threat from the coronavirus, and AERA will be held virtually, the organizers of both events announced Friday.

In a statement posted on SXSW EDU’s conference’s website, organizers indicated that the decision had been made by the host city of Austin, Texas, and that the leaders of both SXSW EDU and the broader film-media-music event affiliated with it, SXSW, “will faithfully follow the city’s directions.”

SXSW EDU, which was scheduled to run March 9-12, has emerged over the years as a bustling hub of educators, ed-tech advocates, companies touting their products, and philanthropists.

The in-person version of the American Educational Research Association, or AERA, annual meeting scheduled for April 17-21 in San Francisco will be recast as a virtual meeting, according to a statement from executive director Felice J. Levine, released Friday. The conference’s major lectures and select sessiions will be available streamed live in real time and “we are in the process of exploring making these sessions available on-demand” for virtual attendees, the statement noted. The organization will put out additional information about logistics and will also host a series of upcoming Zoom listening sessions on the changes.

Across the country, some events had drawn increasing criticism in recent weeks. The larger SXSW event was targeted for its plans to go ahead with the show as the severity of the coronavirus outbreak in different parts of the country intensified.

SXSW drew 200,000 people last year, and a recent petition asking organizers to cancel the event has received more than 17,000 signatures. Twitter has pulled out of the conference lineup and announced that its CEO, Jack Dorsey, would not give the keynote address.

In their online statement Friday, the conference organizers noted that Austin public health authorities initially had said that there was no evidence that closing SXSW would increase the safety of the community. But the “situation evolved rapidly,” SXSW officials said.

Conference officials said they are exploring options to reschedule the event, and to provide a “virtual SXSW online experience.” They said they would be in touch with registrants as soon as possible.

“We are devastated to share this news with you,” they said of the cancellation. “‘The show must go on’ is in our DNA, and this is the first time in 34 years that the March event will not take place. We are now working through the ramifications of this unprecedented situation.”

Check back on the Digital Education blog for more updates on how other conferences this spring are affected by the coronavirus outbreak.


As the coronavirus outbreak takes hold in communities worldwide, organizers of major education conferences scheduled over the coming weeks and months are taking precautions, bracing for cancelations and thinking about how to minimize possible transmissions.

The COVID-19 outbreak is happening just as the conference season is gearing up and some organizations are approaching the situation more aggressively than others.

The ASU GSV Summit, which blends business, education, and technology and last year drew just under 5,000 attendees, will have mandatory temperature screenings at the entrance to its venue in San Diego. Organizers of the March 30 to April 1 event have announced a “no-handshake” policy and plan to have noticeable signs warning attendees away from those greetings. Hand sanitizer will be plentiful and pre-packaged food will be available instead of buffets or plated meals.

Other conferences are cancelling their gatherings altogether. The National Education Association has scrapped four upcoming conferences (see details below) and Texas Instruments cancelled its Teachers Teaching with Technology International Conference scheduled for March 13 to 15 in Dallas. A note on its website says Texas Instruments made the decision to forgo its conference to “prioritize attendees’ health and safety, as well as that of our employees and the community.”

At ASU GSV, organizers have asked attendees from Level 3 countries—meaning the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends avoiding nonessential travel to those nations—not to come to the event. The conference will refund money to attendees from those conferences, including China, South Korea, Iran and Italy, said Deborah Quazzo co-founder of the summit.

ASU GSV will require attendees to show a passport or driver’s license to confirm they aren’t coming from one of those countries. In addition, when people register they’ll be asked to make a statement that they have not visited one of those countries in the last 30 days, she said.

“We feel good about what we’re going to be doing,” Quazzo said, adding that organizers are working closely with the venue, the Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel, on ways to protect attendees.

Quazzo said the hotel has trained its staff to be vigilant about identifying people with symptoms and has protocols in place to prevent the spread of germs, including wiping down elevator buttons frequently.

Attendance numbers have already been impacted, Quazzo said. The event typically draws between 200 and 400 attendees from China who knew they would not be able to come.

Quazzo said the company ASU GSV hired to do temperature screenings will also have a doctor on site to check any symptoms and can refer people to local hospitals. However, she said ASU GSV will alert attendees that false positives also can arise through this protocol.

“We will do whatever it takes to make this safer,” she said.

Other conferences are addressing the issue as well:

SXSW EDU, which is scheduled for March 9-12 in Austin, Texas, is proceeding as scheduled. Organizers urged attendees to follow Word Health Organization safety precautions about hand washing, staying home if ill and keeping hands away from eyes, nose and mouth. On its website SXSW EDU noted that, “Historically, March is not a peak international travel month in Austin,” but said organizers will continue to monitor the situation.

However, the bigger SXSW conference and festival for the music and film industry also held in Austin and scheduled for March 13-22 has come under significant scrutiny. Last year SXSW drew 200,000 people and a recent petition asking organizers to cancel the event has garnered more than 17,000 signatures. Twitter has pulled out of the conference lineup, including yanking Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s planned keynote address.

Here’s a roundup of responses from organizers of some other upcoming education-related conferences about how they’re responding to the coronavirus threat:

  • National Education Association Conferences: The NEA has canceled the National Leadership Summit scheduled for March 13-15 in Orlando, Fla., the Higher Education Conference scheduled for March 12-13 in Orlando, the NEA-Retired Confernce scheduled for March 15-16 in Orlando, and the ESP Conference scheduled for March 20-22 in New Orleans. “We will continue to monitor the situation for our events beyond March,” wrote NEA President Lily Eskelsen García in a statement.
  • CoSN Annual Conference, scheduled for March 16-18 in Washington, DC. As of March 2, the conference will go on as planned. Organizers say they will provide hand sanitizer in public areas of the hotel, and instead of buffet lunches, individually wrapped meals will be provided.
  • AERA Annual Conference, scheduled for April 17-21 in San Francisco. In a note to attendees March 2, executive director Felice J. Levine said organizers will continue to monitor “hourly” ongoing developments with the spread of coronavirus and that they will consult with city and venue officials about possible changes to the event. Levine said the organization is also working with the National Council on Measurement in Education to evaluate the situation, as NCME holds its annual meeting in partnership with AERA’s event.
  • SREE Conference, scheduled for March 11-14 in Crystal City, Va. Organizers have confirmed the event will take place as planned and reassured attendees that there are currently no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the area. In an email to attendees, SREE executive director Ellen Weiss said the conference plans to have “ample soap and hand santizer on site” to allow attendees to frequently wash hands.
  • US-Italia Ed Innovation Festival, scheduled for April 27-29 in Naples, Italy is currently going on as planned, according to an email Feb. 27 from festival organizer Jeanne Allen, the founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform. “So far there is no cause for alarm anywhere in the south of Italy,” Allen wrote, “though we understand that for many travel could become an issue regardless.” Allen said organizers will reassess in a month whether to proceed with the event or make any changes and pledged to refund the cost of registration in case of a cancellation.

Check back on Digital Education for more updates to the plans for these conferences, as we learn of them.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.