Update: On Sept. 28, Kris Lou said in an email that Willamette has decided to cancel all spring semester study abroad programs.
Last semester, Willamette University cancelled its study abroad programs in accordance with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) COVID-19 restrictions. The university’s specific spring 2019 policy was to, “recall students from programs at level 3.” Level 3 in this instance refers to the CDC’s system of travel warnings, which consists of the following designations: no travel health notice, which means that COVID-19 risk is very low; level 1, meaning that risk is low; level 2, meaning that risk is moderate; and level 3, meaning that COVID-19 risk is high. While an unfortunate side effect of the virus, it was ultimately for the best, to get students back with family and in a position where they would be better able to self-quarantine. Fall 2020 programs have also been cancelled, “due to continued restrictions related to COVID-19.”
But according to Dr. Kris Lou, director of Willamette’s Office of International Education (OIE), “Willamette hasn’t cancelled spring programs.” Some countries are out of their control: “Some already informed us that they won't be allowing us to travel, like New Zealand, Australia.” He went on to say: “And things change daily, and we have to adapt. And partners on our programs, they might drop out and say no, and pull their students.”
For the other countries, the OIE is planning ahead as if spring programs will still occur while adapting to any updates the CDC may issue. If the threat level stays at level 3, the OIE will cancel that program. “It’s the same scenario that we experienced last year, we’re trying to keep them open and viable as long as we can, and we’re hopeful, but we’re also realistically assessing as long as we go. When we’re saying we’re hopeful part of that hope is that these travel warnings would be lowered to level 2 or 1, but that hasn’t happened, the further we get into the fall semester and having to make a decision,” said Dr. Lou.
If a student does get COVID-19 abroad, the university will operate on a case-by-case basis, dependent on that student’s host country. As stated by Dr. Lou: “[The university’s response is] going to depend where the student is, which program, is it a host family, university housing, whatever the case may be. We would need to have that plan in place for how that student would be managed by the support structure that’s in place in the country. A general answer to that would be an obvious isolation of the student for the period of time that is necessary for the student to no longer be communicable of the disease and recover.”
This likely means that students who catch the disease while abroad will be detained in their host country, away from their family during a time of need. If a student is not living with a host family, they will have to scramble around to find someone who will give them social support, including comfort and potentially even basic necessities like food. And students living with host families will not only put those families at risk for the virus, but also put them in an uncomfortable place in terms of liability. This would be a disastrous situation to say the least, and one that is easily preventable.
Even if COVID conditions are mitigated to the point of countries being issued a level 1 or 2 travel warning, study abroad programs should not continue. The CDC states on its website, last updated as recently as September 17, that, “travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.” On that same page, the CDC also has recommendations for specific types of transportation, stating that air travel, as well as buses and trains, can increase the risk of contracting COVID-19. This increased risk is because public transportation makes it harder to socially distance, as well as increases the probability of contact with frequently touched spaces. This is important to note because students in study abroad programs do not typically have access to personal cars as a means of transportation, which are likely the safest forms of travel in terms of preventing the spread of COVID-19.
While specific classes may not be affected by this change, the cultural learning experience provided by study abroad will be. Students will be unable to explore their host country to the fullest extent, as many tourist sights will be closed. Any program with an emphasis on service learning projects is likely to be significantly impacted by only attending classes. And if students are just going to be attending classes, this is something they can accomplish online, without the risks of increased quarantine breaking and public transportation usage. This is something that can likely be worked out with individual universities, to give students the same language-learning and friendship benefits they’d otherwise miss out on. Given this, study abroad should be cancelled even if travel warnings decrease from three within the set time frame. Even if the study abroad experience cannot be adequately stimulated in their home country, it is still not worth the risk to students and those they may come into contact with abroad.