What omicron’s global spread could mean to international students

Despite the threat of omicron, higher education programs have proven to be adaptable during the pandemic.
By: | December 3, 2021
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Responding swiftly to the potential threat of the omicron variant—which already has been identified in several states—the Biden Administration has imposed new travel restrictions, testing and masking for those heading in and out of the United States.

As uncertainty swirls around this new coronavirus spinoff’s transmissibility and possible evasion of COVID-19 vaccines, the government is moving more quickly on it than delta. Other countries such as Germany have installed steeper mandates on the unvaccinated to try to curtail spread before the holidays.

The worldwide reaction to omicron could have a deep impact on two of the mainstays of higher education—international student travel and study abroad. During the early stages of the pandemic, student travel was severely impacted. When delta emerged, summer travel took another big hit. There are still a lot of unknowns, but public health experts are being much more guarded and cautious.

“When there is a risk of transmission, we need to find that balance of restricting and mitigating risks,” says Dr. Philip Chan, Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine at Brown University who has been instrumental in the state of Rhode Island’s COVID response. “Given that there are so many unknowns, I agree with restricting travel to areas at the moment until we learn more. That’s one thing we did not do well early in 2020. The virus had already spread halfway across the world,  and we were still traveling.”

So far, the U.S. is only limiting travel from a handful of countries, mostly in southern Africa, where the variant emerged. But there could be more coming. And that leaves those programs’ operations in a bit of flux.

“I think the biggest concern and stressor for us about [omicron] is our current students who are abroad and what’s going to happen in terms of getting them home,” says Kathleen Harring, president at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. “We typically have almost 100 in the fall and 100 in the spring. I think we have 48. But then we have over 90 students who are prepared to go in the spring. What’s going to happen? Are borders going to close?”

There are roughly 915,000 international students who attend institutions in the United States, a big boost from the fall of 2020. Study abroad interest also has grown, according to the latest Open Doors and Snapshot series reports from the Institute of International Education (IIE). The IIE, U.S. State Department and institutions, with help from EducationUSA offices in more than 160 countries, have done well to keep programs going, even pulling together remote options when necessary.

So, even though a looming crisis may seem imminent, institutions and their programs are incredibly agile in handling these moments.

“U.S. higher ed is really adept at handling uncertainty,” says Mary Karam McKey, IIE’s Head of Corporate and Foundation Programs. “We saw that with the start of COVID-19 and how institutions adapted to the pandemic, supporting international students who weren’t able to travel to campus. They developed virtual learning and remote internship programs. For those students on campus, they provided increased communication on health, safety and well-being. The new variant is going to be a challenge. But there is optimism. And we’ll continue to monitor conditions, both globally and regionally.”

The IIE has provided a strong assist throughout the pandemic to colleges and universities. “One of the things we did was support more than 1,000 students through our Emergency Student Fund, a program that provides grants to international students in the U.S. who are impacted by crises, whether they be global crises, or in their home countries,” McKey says. “In addition, we’ve created opportunities for members to connect with one another, stay up to date on critical topics and share expertise.”

McKey believes if omicron is indeed a widespread threat, institutions will be ready to pivot. “I am confident protocols are continually being examined in light of the current situation,” she says. “If students are here in the U.S., and this variant takes over and poses a risk to in-person learning, if students had to move into a virtual space, they would do so.”

Anita Barkin, co-chair of the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 Task Force, agrees but says students themselves should be proactive and think about actionable steps. “Schools have responded pretty quickly and appropriately when they needed to,” she says. “But if I were an international student, I would be in touch with my country’s state department. I would be looking at what travel advice my country is putting in place. I would be talking to the Office of International Education on my campus and seeing what they advise about travel restrictions and my ability to get back to the U.S. if this becomes a problem.

“As for study abroad, they may not know until the 11th hour. They need to be in touch with the country’s respective embassy. They need to look at the CDC travel advice and talk to their parents about how they feel about going abroad at this time.”