Future of spring 2022 study abroad to be determined in mid-December amid concerns over omicron variant

and | Senior Editors
Pictures of people in different locations alongside blocks of text are pinned to a cork board

A bulletin board in the Office of Overseas Programs shows the experiences of students who studied abroad. (Curran Neenan \ Student Life)

Washington University Overseas Programs will decide in mid-December if spring study abroad programs will go on as planned amid rising concerns about the omicron variant.

Study abroad at the University has been suspended since students were sent home during their spring 2020 programs due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The omicron variant, first sequenced in South Africa on Nov. 24 but now known to have first been in Europe, has been confirmed in 23 countries, including the United States. The WHO has labeled omicron a “variant of concern” for its high number of mutations.

Global Travel Safety Manager Catherine Dalton told Student Life in a Wednesday interview that she is working with the University’s Division of Infectious Diseases to determine whether the variant poses a significant risk to students traveling abroad in the spring.

“Where we’re at right now is we don’t have enough data to know,” Dalton said. “So we’re working closely with the Infectious Disease Division to analyze what does come through, but we want to make sure we’re making as fully informed of a decision as possible. We don’t want to make a decision too early and then prematurely jeopardize students’ experiences for the spring, but we also want to take into account that things continue to change.”

Dalton noted that her team is considering three main factors as they analyze the developing data on the variant throughout the next two weeks: transmissibility, severity of illness and the efficacy of vaccines against omicron. The University is also assessing the feasibility of different programs by monitoring the entry and movement restrictions in host countries. Dalton noted that her team decided not to offer multiple programs due to restrictions and concerns over programs’ ability to ensure student safety.

Certain programs did not make it through the review process, Dalton wrote in a follow-up email to Student Life. 

“Other programs in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain were approved,” Dalton wrote. “However, those that did not make it through the review were those that did not yet have experience supporting study abroad students during COVID. The programs in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea that did not make it through were due to strict entry requirements or border closures in those countries.”

On Tuesday, Overseas Programs sent an email regarding the mid-December decision to students planning to study abroad in the spring and said that “we strongly recommend that you get a booster shot in preparation for your departure.”

“Many countries are revising their definition of ‘fully vaccinated’ to include a booster shot,” Overseas Programs said. “Not being ‘fully vaccinated’ could significantly hinder your experience, as well as add costs to maintain the necessary testing regimen to be able to participate in your local community.”

The University has also prepared for the possibility of the developing COVID-19 situation forcing students to travel home or shift to remote learning after their programs begin. 

“The Study Abroad Offices and the International Travel Oversight Committee worked hard to identify programs that had their own continuity plan of, ‘We will go hybrid. We will offer whatever it may be within their plans to make sure that students’ academics aren’t interrupted,’” Dalton said. “Again, similar to WashU, right? There’s still classes that have the remote option if you’re not feeling well. We looked for programs that were doing the same thing so that students’ academic experience wasn’t significantly interrupted.”

Some students have been frustrated with the University’s communication regarding the status of spring study abroad programs. Junior Hannah Leibovich is planning to participate in the Sam Fox Florence Semester program in the spring and said while it was frustrating to not hear the program was on until mid-October, she understands it’s a complicated decision.

“It was frustrating, but at the same time I want to be empathetic because, if I were an administrator at a school or working on a study abroad program, I would also be very stressed about deciding whether or not to let these students go,” Leibovich said. “And so, I understand that it’s not an easy decision.”

Junior Shira Lyss-Loren is participating in a program in Chile through School for International Training (SIT) in the spring and said she receives information from both SIT and the University.

“WashU’s communication has definitely been more frequent… I guess technically better communication because I’m getting more of it but without a whole lot of actual information,” Lyss-Loren said. “It’s been a lot of, like, ‘Stay flexible. Stay on your feet. You don’t know what’s going to happen. Always have a backup plan.’”

Lyss-Loren said that while the flexible messaging works for some things, like registering for spring classes, things like housing are not able to be as easily adjusted.

In regard to COVID-19, Lyss-Loren also noted that she’s waiting until winter break to get a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot in hopes of having the highest possible resistance to the virus throughout the program.

Leibovich said that she’s trying not to think about the possibility of the Florence Semester program being canceled because studying abroad is a big portion of her vision for the rest of her time in college.

“If it gets canceled, I kind of spent this semester expecting to not be here next semester and my vision of the rest of my time at WashU, a big part of that is spending a semester away in Italy and so not going would be… it would kind of really shake me.”

Orli Sheffey contributed reporting.

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