Students reflect on difficulties with COVID-19 returning from fall study abroad programs
'There was no plan'
After finishing up her semester abroad in Nairobi, Kenya, College of Arts and Sciences senior Brooke Wong was excited to return to the U.S. and spend the holidays with her family. Wong and the rest of the students in the AU Nairobi program were on their way to the airport, ready to depart when they learned their stay in Kenya would be extended a little longer.
After a semester of no cases of coronavirus in the program, six out of the seven students in the program had tested positive for COVID-19, halting their trip home.
In Nairobi and in Madrid, two of the AU Abroad premier centers, students faced difficulties in returning to the U.S. that were caused by COVID-19.
The journey home from Kenya
In order to return to the U.S., travelers from Kenya must present a negative COVID-19 test 24 hours before their scheduled departure. Wong and the other students in the program received their test results while on the way to the airport. Instead of leaving Kenya on Dec. 17, they returned to the apartments they had been living at throughout the semester to isolate.
Wong said that the University was unsupportive during the time that she and the other students in the program were sick, and seemed unprepared to handle the situation.
According to emails obtained by The Eagle, students’ parents were told by AU Abroad Executive Director Sara Dumont that the students were “currently asymptomatic and feeling fine.”
According to Wong, “that was just a blatant lie.”
Dumont said that she was not aware that the students were symptomatic, and became aware of it after receiving responses from parents to her email.
Wong said that she and the other students had symptoms such as sore throats and coughs and that Dumont and others from the University were aware of this. Although the directors of the program who were on the ground in Kenya were very helpful and supportive while students were sick, Wong said that she feels like University officials in the U.S. did not have plans in place to support students if they got sick.
At the beginning of the semester, Wong said that they were all told that they would be taken care of if they got sick.
“Before we came they’re like, ‘Oh, don’t worry, if you guys get COVID we have a plan, AU will support you, we have a plan.’ I was like ‘Okay, perfect.’ But then we all got COVID and they obviously didn’t have a plan,” Wong said.
Dumont said there was a detailed mitigation plan for all three of the AU Abroad centers which was put together by a group made up of people at AU across several different departments.
According to the AU Nairobi Fall 2021 risk mitigation plan, which was obtained by The Eagle, both AU and Kenya require people infected with COVID-19 to quarantine for 10 days after testing positive. Instead, Wong said the students were not given a set amount of days to isolate, and were instead instructed to isolate until they received a negative test result.
“Generally speaking, it was until they could get a negative test. So they had to stay isolated. There isn’t any clear recommendation on this coming from different health organizations around the world,” Dumont said. “The CDC says one thing, other governments say something else, but generally speaking, they had to have a negative test before they could get on the plane.”
Wong and other students paid out of pocket for their tests after their initial positive result. It was not until Dec. 23 that the University offered to provide tests to students. At that time, Wong had already left the country, after testing negative for the coronavirus with a test she paid for herself.
“It seems like that they did not have a plan and they did not have funds to handle us getting COVID,” Wong said.
Prior to testing positive, Wong and other students had symptoms that they believed were caused by a cold after traveling to a different part of Kenya for their end-of-semester trip. Two students, Wong said, had fevers and ended up going to the emergency room, where they were not given COVID-19 tests. Throughout the semester, students in the AU Nairobi program received COVID-19 tests on a bi-weekly basis. The week prior to coming down with what they thought were initially colds, all the students had negative tests.
In Madrid, a different story and lessons learned
More than 3,000 miles away, students faced the same plight of testing positive for COVID-19 right before their departure.
Conor Wade, a senior in the School of International Service, was planning on traveling to Portugal after his time in Madrid was over. Wade went to get the required COVID-19 test in order for him to travel to the country. It came back positive.
Wade said he is one of at least four students in the Madrid program who tested positive before they were supposed to leave.
Unlike the students in Nairobi, those in Madrid stayed with homestay families throughout the semester, rather than in dorms or apartments.
The homestay family that Wade lived with hosted him and one other student, who also tested positive for the coronavirus at the same time as him.
Wade recalled having a mild cough, runny nose and feeling fatigued.
“[The symptoms] definitely did hit harder than I thought, but I was never concerned. I just kind of had to wait it out,” he said.
Wade said that he felt supported by both his host family as well as the people on the ground from AU Abroad. The AU Abroad staff in Madrid checked in with him regularly, and he received an email from Abroad staff in the U.S. with a list of resources for him.
When it came to testing, his initial positive test was set up by AU for students who were preparing to leave Spain and the tests that followed he set up himself and paid for out of pocket.
“It would have been nice to have if they had said maybe, you know, ‘Wait a certain period of days and we’ll cover one,’” Wade said. “But I don’t blame them for not doing it because it was such an unprecedented scenario.”
Wade said he is grateful for how his homestay family handled the situation.
“It was just kind of a tough situation to be thrown in all of a sudden because like, I’m living in an apartment with a homestay mother who I’ve gotten to know very well in the course of the semester, but all of a sudden, she was thrown in this in this situation,” he said. “She’s kind of signed up for it, but obviously, you’re hoping you don’t end up having to actually deal with it, but I don’t think I necessarily wish anything was different.”
Dumont said that the students’ experiences at the end of the semester helped AU Abroad identify things to improve for this semester.
“The big thing is realizing the serious likelihood that this may happen again,” she said.
According to Dumont, the University plans on enhancing the insurance coverage all AU travelers receive when going abroad to include a quarantine period, in case students get sick at the end of their program and their homestay families are unable to continue hosting them past the end of the semester.
Dumont also said that the U.S. government putting the 24-hour testing requirement in place also made things a bit more complicated, especially given how different airlines and governments were interpreting the rule and the subsequent overwhelming of testing centers.
“It’s a difficult situation and the students and their families, you know, we try to give as much information as we can so they know the risks they’re accepting by going abroad,” she said. “And then they have been dealing with it and it’s very impressive to see how students have coped even when the situation is very difficult.”
Editor’s Note: Editor-in-Chief Clare Mulroy was not involved in the writing, reporting or editing of this story because of a personal connection to Brooke Wong.