How to Mitigate Risk for Study Abroad this Spring

As outlined in our September 2020 article, IFSA’s approach to running Spring 2021 programs rests in transparent communication about our ability to mitigate COVID-19 related risks in any given program location. As we approach the Spring 2021 semester, we continute to develop our risk mitigation plans, which vary by location and program type.

IFSA monitors each of its program locations closely to ensure each location remains viable. Initially, this means that a location must have ample capacity to treat sick students and that travel to and from the country is open at the time of our decision date. These and additional details are outlined in our program viability matrix, which is published biweekly on the IFSA website.

We understand that risk mitigation in this new environment is a critical topic to our partners and to our students. Our risk mitigation measures are informed by the evolving knowledge and recommendations of public health experts in the United States and globally, successful practices implemented by similar institutions, the practices and policies of our partner institutions and program locations, and finally, the availability of resources in the United States and our program locations.

Even in non-COVID times, risk mitigation is a critical topic and rests on the understanding that global travel can never be risk-free and that students may even choose programs based on their own personal risk thresholds and knowledge of risks associated with locations and program types.

This same philosophy applies now. As the world is learning how to cope with the pandemic, individuals and institutions determine risk tolerances based on their own individual thresholds and understanding of the limits of risk mitigation.

WHAT COVID-19 RISKS WILL SPRING 2021 STUDENTS FACE?

No one can eliminate the risk of coming into contact with or contracting the COVID-19 virus. Knowledge of the virus and tools to fight it continue to develop. However, recent information from both the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Mayo clinic indicate that students are not in the age group that is generally susceptible to serious illness. They are not invulnerable, though. Students with underlying health conditions may still be at risk for serious illness.

However, the individual risk of illness is just one issue that students face. Students may or may not exhibit symptoms, but still carry the virus and thus the behavior of one student impacts the environment of all students. This is true in non-COVID related times; individual behavior often has community impact. This is magnified during a global pandemic. Thus, individual choices regarding travel, social gathering, hygiene, mask-wearing, and beyond have ramifications that can be far-reaching.

This sense of community, which is often an important part of the student experience, may feel lacking to some students given social restrictions and pandemic mitigation measures, such as self-isolation, quarantine, social distancing, and restrictions on gathering as well as the increasingly virtual nature of many interactions. Given this, students may also be at greater risk for challenges related to anxiety and depression.

It is noteworthy that some of the COVID-19 related risks may in part result from pandemic risk mitigation measures, rather than the illness itself. For example, local and national governments may choose to close borders, restrict movements, or implement other measures to protect the public health. A student’s choice to disregard local or national guidelines could come with severe penalties to include fines and arrest in some locations.

Students will need to ensure they understand these guidelines and are ready to shelter in place, for example, as necessary. IFSA and its partners will need to ensure they have the capacity to support students as they do so.

COLLABORATIVE RISK MITIGATION

It is clear that risk mitigation is a collaboration between IFSA, its partners, and students. To this end, risk mitigation measures begin before students depart for their programs and include the following: contingency planning, communications strategy, insurance considerations, continuous monitoring and assessment of local conditions, laws, and public health practices, orientation planning, and risk protocol design and implementation.

This collaboration is evident in pandemic-related language included in participant and housing agreements as well as newly developed documents that include a COVID-19 Assumption of Risk and Responsibility and COVID-19 Social Contract, both of which are supported by training modules and resources in the student portal. Students will understand fully what constitutes behavior that is risky to themselves and to their community, and they may face program dismissal should they disregard instructions.

Collaboration between IFSA and its host institution partners is also critical. These host institution partners are facing pandemic-related challenges, similar to, although perhaps not the same as, in the United States. Based on local circumstances and guidelines, they are implementing their own risk mitigation strategies for students that govern delivery of academics, use of space, and housing. These host institution strategies also rely upon local public health guidelines surrounding, but not limited to social distancing, quarantine and self-isolation, use of PPE, testing, and contact tracing.

In many circumstances, IFSA will need to rely upon and have trust in its host institution partners to implement best practices. We continue to work closely with all of our partners to ensure that contingency and comprehensive pandemic plans are in place and have arranged that IFSA students be placed in single housing where at all possible, while ensuring are partners are leveraging space with enhanced hygiene protocols and appropriate ventilation.

WILL IFSA TEST STUDENTS REGULARLY?

IFSA’s ability to have students tested rests upon the local availability of tests and criteria for being tested. We are gathering comprehensive testing information in all program locations and updating it continuously and will implement testing as is possible in each program location.

Currently, testing is required upon entry in some locations, but thereafter only available upon contact with someone who is symptomatic or if one is exhibiting symptoms.

In most cases, tests are inexpensive or even free if one is exhibiting symptoms. However, tests taken without cause as defined by the local host government may be costly, depending upon who administers them, the type of test, and overall test availability.

In some locations, self-isolation or quarantine is required for students who may have been exposed, whether they are able to test or not.

It is critical to understand that IFSA will support testing to the extent it is possible in accordance with local restrictions and that this situation is dynamic.

WHAT IS IFSA DOING ABOUT QUARANTINES AND SELF-ISOLATION?

There are two instances that may require students to separate from others. Based on Mayo clinic definitions, one is called quarantine and is generally implemented out of caution and one is called isolation and is applied to people who are known to be ill. IFSA will follow all local guidelines with respect to arrival quarantines, and we continue to monitor these requirements and to plan to support students throughout this period with programming and regular check-ins via phone or computer. In many locations, students will be able to quarantine and self-isolate in program housing. In locations where this is not possible, our resident staff are working with local partners to ensure the appropriate space is available to complete requirements in accordance with local best practices.

WHAT DOES STUDY ABROAD IN A PANDEMIC LOOK LIKE?

Study abroad is an individual experience and what it looks like for a student will depend on the student, whether during COVID-19 or not. However, it is clear that students studying abroad this spring will develop flexibility, resilience, adaptability, and fortitude, all of which are critical skills to their futures.

Program structures and rules may be altered such that independent travel is restricted, activities and excursions are locally focused and students must take increased personal responsibility for their actions and how they impact their community.

Students may not travel as widely, but may become more deeply integrated with their local program location. They may develop the depth of a resident rather than the breadth of a traveler.

IFSA will support students throughout this experience while also mitigating risk on behalf of our resident staff. IFSA’s expert resident staff will be available to guide and support students, at times virtually, as we face this new environment and its new challenges together.