As has been repeated over and over these past several months, we are in unprecedented times. The field of International Education has not seen a worldwide pandemic on this scale in decades. Circumstances around the world are changing quickly. The goal of this page is to educate study abroad participants of the possibility of a wide range of circumstances that could be experienced during this on-going pandemic. Due to host government restrictions, there may be limitations on the level of support that can be offered students by GVSU, and even the US government while traveling overseas. Students choosing to study abroad during this pandemic will be required to exercise a great amount of flexibility and patience in order to successfully navigate the vast array of uncertainties that could arise. Additionally, students should be prepared to cover any additional costs that may be incurred as a result of traveling during a worldwide pandemic.
Padnos International Center understands that many students plan months and years in-advance to participate in study abroad. We also recognize the important role that study abroad plays in a student’s academic career and personal development. While proceeding with study abroad during a pandemic poses a risk, we believe many measures can be taken by individuals to minimize these risks such as: consistently wearing a clean face covering while in public spaces, maintaining a physical distance of 6 ft from others, avoiding large gatherings, washing hands frequently, and minimizing unnecessary travel. While these measures may help reduce a person’s risk of contracting a contagious and infectious disease, such as COVID-19, they will not eliminate the risk.
Advice from the US State Department
The US State Department and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) offers country-specific travel advice. Students must carefully read the travel information available by both of these agencies.
Advice from the Center for Disease Control (CDC)
The CDC offers country-specific advice to travelers based on recent conditions in a particular country. The CDC also offers information regarding medical conditions that are deemed high risk for severe illness of contagious and infectious disease. Individuals who have one or more medical conditions that are high-risk for severe illness are advised by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) not to travel.
Government and Host Institution Guidelines
Students are expected to abide by local government and host institution guidelines and protocols. It is possible that, prior to departure, government restrictions could be imposed without warning that would ban entry for non-citizens of that country. If entry restrictions are imposed and students are not allowed to travel to the host country to start the academic program, they may still be responsible for all non-refundable costs such as: the cost of international travel, some portion of program fees, non-refundable pre-paid services, and non-refundable deposits. Students are advised to contact their study abroad provider or host university to carefully explore cancellation policies before making a financial commitment. In some instances, expenses may be paid by the host university or study abroad provider on your behalf which are non-refundable. Study abroad providers will necessarily pass non-refundable costs on to the participants.
Students who violate government-imposed restrictions such as: mandatory quarantine, wearing a mask, attending social gatherings that do not adhere to local restrictions, or those who violate a curfew, may be at risk for significant fines, arrest, and/or time in prison.
Institutions around the world continue to experience periods of closure due to increased outbreaks of COVID-19. Circumstances on the ground may change quickly. Decisions on closures are made in the best interest of public health and safety. Government mandates may require the closure of campuses leaving few students, if any, remaining in halls of residence. Students who choose to remain in the host country may experience long periods of isolation due to local lockdowns. Long periods of isolation can be extremely challenging, especially for individuals who are still acclimating to a new environment.
GVSU may recommend that students return home in the event that local conditions in a particular country or region reach a critical point where access to health care is limited and/or if it is believed that the local conditions are no longer safe. GVSU does not exercise authority to mandate that a student embark on a return flight to the US; however, we will provide students with our informed recommendations. Should students remain in the host country against the advice of GVSU, they are responsible for any and all consequences and costs incurred as a result of that decision.
Public transportation is often used more frequently in other countries. In some instances, students may find it necessary to use public transportation on a daily basis. Being in enclosed, crowded spaces can increase the risk of exposure to contagious and infectious diseases, including coronavirus. Due to high demand, it is not always possible for students to live in on-campus housing or in housing that is within walking distance to the host university.
Government mandates may dictate closure of public transportation systems with little or no advance notice. Students may be left with limited options on navigating a return to the airport should they wish to return home. Students may be required to utilize a variety of local resources in order to identify options for getting to the airport.
Restricted Flights/Flight Cancellations/Repatriation Flights
In March 2020, the world saw a near halt to international flights. In some countries, there were no inbound or outbound flights scheduled for an indefinite period of time. Major airlines cancelled flights which made it very difficult for some individuals to return to the US. In some cases, students were booked on more than 10 flights that were all cancelled before finally getting a flight out of the host country. Needless to say, these were extremely stressful circumstances.
Many airlines have reduced the number of flights available. Students should carefully check airline change fee policies to understand if there will be an additional cost should the need arise to adjust a return flight home.
In some limited circumstances, the US government arranged repatriation flights to assist Americans who were stranded due to commercial airline cancellations and wanted to return to the United States. Repatriation flights often take weeks to arrange. Some Americans were given access to a repatriation flight to return to a port of entry into the United States. Individuals were then responsible for securing their own way home from that point of entry. Both the repatriation flight and any additional return transportations costs are the responsibility of the passenger. In some cases, Americans may not be repatriated back to the United States, but the nearest safe location. Again, any government coordinated repatriation flight requires the passenger to cover the charges for that service. This service may not be available to Americans residing in all countries. In some instances, the US Embassy advised Americans to find a safe location in the host country to stay until commercial flights resumed. Americans who wanted to return to the United States were stranded with very few, if any, options for returning within weeks or even months. We recommend all students carefully read the information available on the US State Department website regarding emergency evacuation flights:
Travel restrictions on independent travel
Many students look forward to studying abroad for the opportunities to participate in independent travel during free time. Under the current situation, many programs are restricting independent travel by visiting students. This is for your own safety and for the safety of the host community. We advise students to consider focusing on local opportunities to avoid any increased exposure to the coronavirus due to travel. Additionally, there continue to be examples of restrictions that are imposed without warning. In some circumstances, travelers may lose their opportunity to travel due to government-imposed restrictions.
Governments have imposed mandatory quarantine measures for individuals traveling to a particular country or region. Mandatory quarantines are typically for 14 days and may be issued without advance notice. Traveling outside of the host country on weekends or breaks may compromise a student’s health, and negatively impact their ability to stay on track with the academic program. Students should also be aware that there may also be limitations for getting a refund for hotel, transportation, and other travel-related services paid in-advance. Many companies are not offering a refund for travelers who change their plans after booking. Students are strongly advised to check cancellation policies before making financial commitments.
Travel restrictions for returning to the US
In recent months, the world has seen a wide range of responses to the coronavirus pandemic. We encourage students to be mindful of the various responses and understand that some restrictions may be completely out of your control. Should the pandemic worsen, the US government may require travelers to quarantine in government quarantine sites. A number of American citizens were quarantined by the US government in US government facilities after evacuating from a cruise ship earlier this year. Quarantine sites may be located far from your home state. If students are subject to a government-mandated quarantine, there may be little that they, their family, or GVSU could do to address concerns that arise.
The health and safety of students, faculty and staff is the top priority. Students should anticipate periodic disruptions to academic programming while this pandemic continues. Bringing together hundreds, and even thousands, of students to attend in-person classes could increase the risk for coronavirus outbreaks even if the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommended guidelines are carefully followed. Each country and institution will have their own standards on safety protocols. Safety protocols may look different depending on the host country. Each institution will coordinate their own response to the pandemic. Institutions may have different criteria in determining when/if to close a campus and transition to online learning. Students should be prepared that classes may not be in-person for the duration of the semester and there may not be a refund for tuition or housing fees paid if, due to public safety measures, the university transitions to online learning. Choosing to study abroad during this time requires students to have a good understanding of these considerations, and a willingness to adapt to the changing circumstances in the host country/city.
If a student wishes to return home, GVSU will provide guidance, if needed. If it is necessary for a student to change their return flight, the airline may charge a change fee. GVSU has very limited grant support to assist students in these circumstances. Students should be prepared to cover these costs should an emergency departure be necessary.
Students need to also be aware that should they contract COVID-19 while abroad, they may not be allowed to board a return flight home. Many airlines are requiring evidence of a negative covid-19 test prior to allowing an individual to board a flight. Even if someone does not show symptoms, they may not be allowed to board the return flight home if they test positive for the virus. Students should consider this in their planning. Students may be required to extend their stay in the host country until they no longer test positive for the virus and are cleared for travel.
Access to medical care
As in the United States, outbreaks are happening around the globe in different locations at different times. Places experiencing an outbreak may impose lockdown measures until cases resume to a manageable level which can often be weeks or months. An issue of serious concern is the ability of local hospitals to treat the most seriously ill patients. This is a constantly changing situation. In many places around the world, hospital intensive care units are at or over capacity. In some cases, patients may be turned away due to the hospitals inability to provide care. While care will be taken to continually monitor local conditions, it may not be possible to predict the ability of local medical facilities to attend rapidly rising cases of seriously ill patients, should local conditions worsen. Students are strongly advised to pay close attention to the local conditions and make their own decisions on their health and well-being.
There are examples of countries that have managed the influx of seriously ill patients without overwhelming the local health care systems. The situation in each country and each city continues to change from day to day. Making predictions on whether or not a health care system is going to be able to provide a high level of care to seriously ill patients may still be uncertain.
Regardless of the status of the academic program (online or in-person), most housing providers will expect payment for the full duration of the contract terms. In most instances, housing charges will not be refunded to students in the event of an early departure. If the housing unit closes and mandates that students relocate, students may be eligible for a partial refund depending on the housing providers contract terms. Students should research this in advance of signing any contracts and/or making any financial commitments. Students living in on-campus housing could be asked to depart the residence halls should an outbreak require closure of the host university. This action could be taken as a result of a government-mandate or university policy. Under those circumstances, GVSU would advise students to return home rather than find alternative or temporary accommodations.
Students need to be aware that homestay families will likely have external jobs. There is increased risk of exposure to coronavirus when a number of individuals share a residence. Additionally, it is important that students take seriously their responsibility to take every precaution to minimize exposure to the coronavirus. As a member of the host family, everyone plays an important role in keeping the entire household safe. Host families may have more restrictive policies during this pandemic. It is important for students to ask in-advance about the house rules or expectations so that an informed decision can be made before making a commitment.
Students are advised to carefully read cancellation policies for their particular program. Students who apply to study abroad through one of GVSU’s exchange programs will need to work closely with the Padnos International Center when notifying the host university of any intention to cancel. Students who have paid non-refundable deposits should not expect to receive a refund from the program. Most fees paid to the study abroad provider are not recoverable. Students are advised to explore the refund and cancellation policies well in-advance of making a financial commitment.
Students will be eligible to receive a refund of the $100 OASIS application deposit if cancellation is due to concerns over the coronavirus pandemic.
Students applying to study abroad on one of GVSU’s exchange programs where tuition is paid directly to GVSU, may be eligible for a tuition refund only if the host university is unable to deliver the academic program using any mode of delivery (in-person, hybrid, or online instruction). The vast majority of institutions abroad will have the ability to transition courses to online course instruction should it be necessary.
It has never been more important that students have adequate medical insurance coverage. Students are advised to contact their primary insurance carrier to ask detailed questions about COVID-19 coverage, including: hospitalizations, long-term care, prescriptions, mental health, rehabilitation, coverage for medical evacuation, etc.
In many instances, insurance providers may not approve coverage for a medical evacuation to the United States if it is determined that the individual is receiving adequate care in the host country. Due to the highly contagious nature of the coronavirus, it may be determined that transporting a seriously ill patient may pose increased danger to the sick individual and the general public, despite the wishes of the student and/or the student’s family.
Cleaning and sanitation
Students should be well-informed of best practices in cleaning and sanitation. Standards around the world may differ from what you expect at home. Students should assume responsibility for attending to cleaning and sanitizing their living environment. The CDC offers a lot of practical information on how to properly clean and sanitize to reduce exposure to germs and viruses.
Students need to understand that University life at home and abroad is going to look different while the pandemic continues. Traditional campus activities may be modified or temporarily suspended. These actions are taken for the health and safety of the entire community.
Shortages of Food and Supplies
During lockdowns, it is not uncommon for people to stock-up on regularly used supplies. This can leave store shelves empty for significant periods of time. Prices may also rise due to demand for certain products. Due to the swift actions of governments to impose lockdowns, students are strongly advised to have an adequate stock of food and supplies for at least a two-week period at all times.
Upon your return
As long as the pandemic continues, students may be expected to self-quarantine for 14 days upon return to the United States. Self-quarantine means that individuals do not leave their place of residence or socialize with others in a close setting for 14 days. This also requires that individuals not start or return to any in-person employment until after this 14-day period has concluded. This is for the health and safety of the entire community. Traveling can increase your risk of exposure to the coronavirus. Individuals may not experience symptoms, but may still be able to spread this illness to others who may be at high risk for serious illness or death. Please take this responsibility seriously and plan for this time upon your return.