To Go or Not To Go Abroad: Assessing COVID-19 Risks in Study Abroad

Just six months ago on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 a pandemic. Since then, circumstances in the United States and globally have changed significantly. Medical experts and public health officials continue to learn more about the virus and how to manage and contain it. Based on this knowledge, governments implement policies and recommendations that are designed to manage or slow the spread of the disease.

In the United States, we have seen major challenges as a result of the virus, which has taken hold here more than in any other location globally. Still, we are learning how to live with the virus. Every day we make decisions about going to get groceries, going to the gym, meeting people outdoors or indoors and in what number, for example, with our current public health mandates and recommendations to manage the pandemic in mind.

We approach the spring 2021 semester of study abroad against this background. The pandemic is no longer a new and unprecedented situation. In fact, the world is learning how to cope with the pandemic situation and individuals and institutions are determining risk tolerances based on their own individual thresholds.

Thus, central to IFSA’s strategy for spring programming is transparent and regular risk assessment by individual location and we utilize the IFSA Health and Safety Matrix to help assess this.

What is the IFSA Health and Safety Matrix?

IFSA’s Health and Safety Matrix is a key component in our transparent and regular communications surrounding factors that might stop a program from running or that might cause a partner or student to reconsider their decision to go on a program.

The goal of the matrix is to identify critical and consistent variables across programs to help assess our ability to mitigate risk. The matrix is divided into two components:

  1. Conditions that, if met individually, would lead to program cancellation.
  2. An index of scored variables reflecting a location’s sociopolitical stability, pandemic management policies, and Covid-19 trends that provide additional context and that may also factor into program cancellation decisions and that inform risk management measures.

Why Would IFSA Cancel a Program?

  1. There are two very basic reasons why an IFSA study abroad program might be cancelled:
    American students can’t enter the country and,
  2. Once in the country, the possibility that a student would not be able to receive medical care. As noted, the pandemic situation in the United States has been challenging. Some countries that may be further along in controlling the virus may be unwilling to allow Americans (as well as other nationalities) to enter their borders. Many countries have placed restrictions on cross border travel and the nature and target of these restrictions continues to evolve. If a program location does not have the medical infrastructure to handle both the pandemic and the everyday medical issues that a country might face, it is no longer viable for spring study abroad students. Not only does the location need to have the infrastructure in place to treat their own citizens, but it must also have ample capacity and willingness to treat foreign students.

In addition, Covid-19 trends and corresponding government policies vary by location and by region. Some countries may have strict quarantine measures in place and these measures may limit or restrict IFSA’s ability to fully support our students while in quarantine. This, too, would prompt program cancellation and is tracked in our matrix.

Currently, there many countries still in lockdown. Countries generally leverage stages of restriction of movement and gathering that lead up to a full lock down to manage the pandemic. In some countries, full lockdown has led to a closure of borders such that return from the country would be difficult. In these countries, we will closely monitor Covid-19 trends and stages of restriction.

What Else Does IFSA Monitor?

IFSA recognizes that we are neither public health experts nor statisticians and therefore we rely upon the experts to inform our trend tracking. Leveraging information from WHO, the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Department of State, Johns Hopkins University, Oxford University’s Our World in Data, local and national public health governing bodies and foreign affairs departments, the University of Washington, and additional sources, we look at sociopolitical stability, pandemic management policies, and Covid-19 trends in each of our locations and assign them a score based on these factors.

A higher score means a higher risk and a lower score means a lower risk. The scores have no intrinsic meaning. They are a way to track trends and to compare locations, and they may prompt us to dig deeper into a location to ensure our risk mitigation strategies are transparent regarding the changing context there.

Moving Targets

We recognize that the world is constantly changing. Critically, knowledge of Covid-19 and how to manage it continue to evolve, as will the availability of resources to appropriately do so. IFSA will continue to monitor each of its program locations and to adjust its lens and strategies as necessary to meet the needs of this dynamic environment. We will never be able to eliminate risk, but rather to mitigate it. The program viability matrix is available to inform not only our processes, but yours, as you determine your individual thresholds for study abroad in the upcoming spring semester.

Watch the IFSA Webinar

If this topic is of interest to you, you might also enjoy the webinar we recently hosted by the same name. Available on demand, the 45-minute webinar will address in greater detail how the Matrix is put together and how IFSA is using it to evaluate program viability for the Spring 2021 semester.

By Amy Kuether
Director, Health and Safety