Emmanuel College in Boston's Fenway neighborhood has asked 14 students pulled from their study abroad programs in Italy to self-isolate for two weeks, even if they are symptom-free.

Gabriella Rico, a sophomore from Los Angeles, said she appreciates Emmanuel taking that and other precautions. "Our school does packaging of the food to make sure we don’t have any contamination of anything," she said.

Still, Rico said she worries staff and students can do only so much to prevent an outbreak on the campus, which is surrounded by private hospitals and dorms, some belonging to other colleges.

"All [students] share saliva. All share the same air, bathrooms,” Rico said. “We're all basically the same person. One person gets sick, everybody gets sick."

Colleges in the Boston area are hoping to prevent that kind of widespread contagion, spelling out protective protocols and preparing for the worst. Containing a potential outbreak could be difficult, though, with thousands of students living in such close quarters.

On Monday, Amherst College announced students would switch to remote classes after spring break, with all students "expected to have left campus by" March 16. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced Monday that all classes of 150 students or more will begin holding sessions "in virtual form," and Harvard on Tuesday morning also announced it will hold all classes online. This week, UMass Amherst is allowing students to remain in their dorms over spring break. Northeastern University, MIT and most other schools are requesting students and faculty who have traveled to China, South Korea, Italy or Iran self-isolate.

Public health specialists say these precautions are prudent, but everyone on and off campus should calm down.

“As a community, as a country and frankly as a world, we need to take a step back, take a deep breath, and let's look at the reality of this and let's analyze the data,” said Dr. Greg Ciottone, who teaches emergency medicine at Harvard Medical School and serves as president of the World Association for Disaster and Emergency Medicine.

“Every college really needs to do a risk assessment, and that should be done on a continuous basis, because this event will change as time goes on," he said.

Juliette Kayyem, who teaches security and global health at the Kennedy School, said isolating a student in a dorm is impossible. “You’re likely to have roommates,” she said.

A UMass Boston student was the first person to be quarantined in the state last month after he returned from China. Kayyem, who described the coronavirus as "a slow-roll crisis," said we're bound to see more cases on campuses.

"Something like a pandemic is probably the hardest thing to rally and galvanize around because there's not the proverbial boom — that moment, the Boston Marathon bombing, a hurricane, an earthquake, an oil spill — that people can organize and motivate around," she said.

Local colleges are in a tough position, Kayyem conceded, because they function like parents for thousands of undergrads.

"In some cases, [you have to] move students out of a zone of contagion, as you would if one of your kids was sick and you wanted to keep the other two from getting the flu," she said.

Kayyem, a former federal and state homeland security officer, said the most important thing a college can do right now to prepare for the pandemic is provide clear communication.

"You can't go silent now,” she said. “This is the time that people need information."