Restarting Study Abroad

Colleges grapple with resuming study abroad -- and with how to incorporate new State Department travel warnings about COVID-19-related risks into their planning.

May 19, 2021
 
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Few sectors of higher ed have been hit as hard by the pandemic as study abroad. The rapid spread of COVID-19 in spring 2020 forced colleges and study abroad providers to suspend their in-person programs and embark on an unprecedented worldwide effort to bring students home. A small number of colleges resumed limited study abroad options this year. But at many colleges, study abroad simply disappeared.

Now, as some colleges plan to restart their study abroad options, they are grappling with an unanticipated variable: recent revisions to the U.S. Department of State’s travel advisories intended to better align the country-level advisories with travel health notices issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The changes, announced in mid-April, resulted in a substantial jump in the number of countries that bear the State Department’s highest warning, Level 4: Do Not Travel.

About 80 percent of countries -- nations as disparate as Austria and Afghanistan, Iran and France, North Korea and Canada -- are now rated Level 4: Do Not Travel. The State Department explained in an April 19 announcement that a changed rating “does not imply a reassessment of the current health situation in a given country, but rather reflects an adjustment in the State Department’s Travel Advisory system to rely more on CDC’s existing epidemiological assessments.”

Many colleges rely on the State Department advisories in assessing the risk of university-sponsored international travel and have policies restricting or prohibiting study abroad in countries with Level 4 or Level 3: Reconsider Travel ratings. Currently only 16 countries -- an unusual grouping of nations including Belize, Benin, Bhutan, Ghana, Grenada, Liberia, Mauritania, Montserrat, Palau, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam, Zambia, and Zimbabwe -- have a Level 2: Exercised Increased Caution rating, and none are rated Level 1, the lowest rating, which equates to Exercise Normal Precautions.

International education groups have written to the State Department raising alarm the revised warnings will restrict opportunities for students.

“We appreciate that the Department and the CDC have more closely aligned their rankings,” 11 associations including NAFSA: Association of International Educators and the Forum on Education Abroad wrote in a May 5 letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “The new advisories, however, seem to ignore vaccination rates and the status of individual travelers. The result is that including 80 percent of the countries around the globe in a Level 4 Travel Advisory means that tens of thousands of opportunities for students to travel abroad may be eliminated.  This change could impact not just the fall 2021 semester, but also study abroad opportunities for the foreseeable future.”

“We really were thrown a curveball,” said Melissa Torres, the executive director of the Forum on Education Abroad. “I don’t think there’s going to be a wholesale return to study abroad in the fall. I really think that what’s going to happen is until we have a large portion of the global population vaccinated, particularly in Western Europe, you’re not going to see a huge return to study abroad until then, because institutions have become more risk averse, not less.”

Andrea Campbell Drake, director of international health, safety and security at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and co-chair of a NAFSA subcommittee focused on education-abroad health and safety, said a survey about the revised travel advisories conducted by the subcommittee found that 18 percent of colleges will not send students to countries rated Level 4, and 39 percent are still deciding. Another 39 percent said they will send undergraduates to Level 4-rated countries with a review and approval process.

"Herein lies the challenge -- those universities that have the ability to undertake a more nuanced review and approval process can continue to send students, but those universities and colleges who are less well resourced or understaffed have historically relied very heavily on the DOS Travel Advisories, and therefore are having a challenging time adapting to this change," Drake said.

In addition to aligning more closely with the CDC’s Travel Health Notices, the updated advisories also take into account logistical factors, including availability of COVID-19 testing and travel restrictions for U.S. citizens.

“Unfortunately, the global epidemic is far from over and CDC's [travel health notices] provide invaluable information for people considering overseas travel,” Ian G. Brownlee, the assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, wrote in a letter to NAFSA about the changes. “Incidence rates are rising in many of the destinations previously favored by U.S. travelers and students, and many countries still have stringent entry/exit restrictions and quarantine requirements in place to halt the spread of COVID-19. In some countries, limited exceptions to entry restrictions are available for students.”

"I share your concern that the pandemic has set back opportunities for U.S. citizens to travel, live, work, and study abroad, which could have a tangible future impact," Brownlee wrote. "Balancing this with the need to safeguard U.S. citizens from the dangers of the pandemic is a challenge that will continue until the end of the pandemic."

Andrea Bordeau, the president of PULSE: International Health and Safety Professionals in Higher Education and global safety and security manager at Vanderbilt University, echoed Drake in saying that colleges and universities that have more capacity and resources to assess the risks of sponsoring travel to a particular country are less likely to rely on State Department warnings as a single measure. “Student mobility and global engagement are incredibly important, so it’s a shame to see that now, depending on how many resources a university has, its ability to engage globally is going to be limited,” she said.

Colleges that are resuming study abroad are making decisions on a country-by-country, program-by-program level: Bordeau said colleges represented among PULSE's membership are planning on offering anywhere between 20 and 50 percent of their normal study abroad catalog this fall.

Notably, as colleges look to resume study abroad, the pandemic has also forced a shift away from Global South locations toward countries, primarily in Western Europe and parts of Asia, with advanced health-care systems and higher vaccination rates. Even before the pandemic, more than half of all students who studied abroad -- 55.7 percent in 2018-19 -- studied in Western Europe.

“We’ve seen this narrowing,” Bordeau said. ”The other thing that’s important to note here is so many third-party providers have been forced due to the economic impact of COVID to shut down locations around the world, and the majority of locations we’ve lost have been outside Western Europe. One of the real tragedies is we’ve lost them as options in two ways: one, we’ve lost them as options because third-party providers have had to shutter many of these programs, and the other reason we’ve lost them is we’re not seeing vaccination access and equity in those countries where we need to be to responsibly run programs in those countries. Right now sub-Saharan Africa, South America, the Global South is nearly lost to us, and that is an absolute tragedy and it will have ripple effect in study abroad for years to come.”

The University of Notre Dame announced last week that it would resume study abroad this fall after having suspended it for the past year. Michael Pippenger, Notre Dame’s vice president and associate provost for internationalization, said the university’s long-standing presence and infrastructure in a number of international locations, combined with the fact that it has a dedicated staff member, Jaime Signoracci, focused on international travel health and safety issues, allows the university to do the country- and program-specific analysis needed “to make an informed decision as an institution about what’s possible in this environment.”

Notre Dame is requiring all students, including students participating in study abroad, to be vaccinated against COVID-19. As of now, the university is planning on programs not only in Western Europe, but also in a range of other destinations including Chile, Hong Kong, Israel, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda and Singapore.

Demand is high, and on par with fall 2019 -- 325 students are signed up for study abroad this fall, compared to 350 in fall 2019. “There is a lot of pent-up excitement to get out back in the world,” Pippenger said, “and it’s great to see the numbers back that up.”

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