Whether your teen is a homebody or an intrepid soul, chances are the pandemic has caused them to develop a little bit of wanderlust. And for parents who can afford it, a study abroad program might seem like an excellent way to reward months of lockdown, Zoom fatigue, and all-around cabin fever.
Full disclosure: I work for a non-profit that runs teen exchange programs. But that also means I’ve seen how travel can benefit young people by expanding their understanding of the world—and what’s possible. Studying abroad can build confidence, resourcefulness and independence. Students often arrive with only basic language skills, knowing only the name of their host family, and leave with strong language skills and lasting friendships.
But like travel in general, cultural exchange has been devastated by COVID-19. According to a survey from NAFSA: Association of International Educators (yes, that’s the actual name of the organization), the international education industry could lose some $1 billion because of the pandemic.
If you’re considering sending your kid on an exchange program this year, it’s important to understand the current landscape. For instance, while the pandemic has reduced travel costs, don’t expect to get a discount on student exchange programs—even if the experience is different than it used to be. Post-COVID-19 programs will cost the same, even if activities are reduced or canceled, or schools go hybrid or remote. For some families, that may be a reason to wait before sending a kid abroad.
These are other challenges—and opportunities!—to keep in mind.
Programs are running—at least some of them
While many teen abroad programs remain active, variety is more limited than usual.
Traditional exchanges—where students arrive in a country and head directly to a host community to live with a family and attend school for anywhere from a trimester to an academic year—have continued to run. But many shorter, faster-paced, more tourism-based experiences, including service trips, immersion experiences, and language-learning programs have been called off. The nature of these trips—seeing multiple cities in a country or region, interacting with locals, gathering in large groups—is pretty challenging in a pandemic. And it’s unclear whether they’ll be able to move forward this year.
Entry restrictions are a big factor in program availability. More than 50 countries now allow U.S. citizens to visit, but some teen travel programs in those destinations are suspected because of government-mandated arrival quarantines and other requirements. And European Union countries—among the most popular for study abroad— still don’t allow U.S. tourists, though those restrictions exempt student visa holders.
That means academic study abroad programs can run, but short-term trips or tours can’t.
They could also still be cancelled
It’s still unclear how vaccines will change international travel. And one thing the pandemic taught us all is that policies can change in the blink of an eye.
There’s always a chance that a study-abroad program will be changed or canceled. It’s important to fully understand a program’s cancellation policy before you commit. Good questions to ask include the program’s timeline for cancellation—would you have two weeks’ notice? A month? Also ask about refund policies. Can you get a full or partial refund, or only credit for a future start date? Can your child detour to a new destination? As with all fine print, make sure to get it in writing.
And consider having a plan B. If your child’s program is canceled, where will they attend school at home? Will there be any obstacles to enrollment? Especially after this past year, nobody needs the additional stress of a last-minute scramble for school.
The prep process could take longer
During non-pandemic times, sending a teen abroad could take several months of mental and logistical preparation. Covid-19 has complicated the process on several fronts.
For starters, the U.S. Department of State is reporting longer passport processing times. Applicants can expect to wait 10 to 12 weeks for their passports.
Since the start of the pandemic, foreign consulates in the U.S. have had limited hours, reduced staff, and decreased capability to function. If your child needs a visa, it can take longer to secure appointments, have paperwork processed and even get questions answered. The Consulate General of Spain in Chicago, for example, posted this message for visa applicants on its website, “we regret the inconvenience, but we cannot guarantee to have appointments for everybody due to the uncertainty during this times (sp).”
One way to ease the process is to start applications and preparations as early as possible. Though programs typically don’t have any special priority or connection with consulates, lean on the provider for their support or historical knowledge. For example, do they have any previous experience with that consulate? If so, do they know of any quirks or sticking points in past students’ applications?
If your nearest consulate isn’t responding to emails or calls, try contacting a different location and asking for help, or inquire with the embassy of that country. It’s not always pretty, but sending Instagram direct messages or tweeting at a consulate could create some movement.
When you do secure a visa appointment, make sure to follow the consulate’s application instructions perfectly to avoid redoing any steps and creating further setbacks. If you can reach the consulate via phone or email, verify that listed instructions are still accurate. Patience, optimism, and creative thinking are all useful when planning a Covid-era study-abroad trip.
There will still be Covid risks and inconveniences
We’d all love to hop on a plane and escape the pandemic, but the reality is that the virus has spread worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, while many countries have managed to suffer just a handful of deaths (when we published this article, New Zealand had 26) only a dozen areas have managed to remain Covid-free.
Just like here in the U.S., students abroad will likely be faced with mask mandates, physical distancing requirements, and restrictions on indoor dining and recreation activities. Host schools might have—or revert to—hybrid learning programs or staggered schedules.
Some of the best parts of living with a host family, like long Sunday multi-generational family meals, might look different as host families reduce the amount of people they come into contact with. Teens who are grappling with loneliness in the pandemic might not find the refuge they’re hoping for. Do your research on the destination and set your child’s expectations accordingly.
Look for information on local restrictions and prepare students for the type of activities they’ll be able to do. They may not be able to visit restaurants or go on school field trips, but hiking, ice skating and skiing may still be on the table. If they’ll miss seeing other students’ homes, they might need to pick a country with looser policies, like Sweden or Costa Rica.
The U.S. Embassies in destination countries publish the latest Covid regulations. For example, the U.S. Embassy in Austria has information on entry requirements for U.S. citizens and details on curfews and hotel and restaurant opening status, as well as testing and vaccination details for Austrian citizens. Ask the program provider for any news from their current students or local staff on what life is like and what students’ social lives look like. You might even ask to speak with a current student to get a firsthand report.
What about health?
It’s crucial to remember that your child will still be at risk for Covid infection abroad. Be sure to understand how your health insurance works outside of the country.
Parents should look for information on when viral tests are covered by insurance and when they aren’t (and if they aren’t, how much they cost abroad). Inquire about what out-of-pocket expenses you could incur for hospitalization due to infection, as well as whether any quarantine costs are covered. Many providers include student insurance in the program fee, so check with their policy.
Exchange programs have to defer to each country’s Covid regulations (such as quarantine on arrival) but they may also have their own quirks. Some programs will charge additional fees for housing students who are infected and can’t isolate with their host family.
In general, host families commit to treating exchange students as they would their own children. This means they’ll take full responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of your child according to their local rules and cultural understanding of Covid. But this might be different from your perception, so be prepared. Your child’s host family, along with a local program representative will be responsible for helping your child in an illness or emergency.
It can still be life-changing
Despite the challenges and uncertainties, this could still be a great year to send your teen abroad.
The pandemic has been stressful and, for many, tragic. But it’s also historic. A teen going abroad this year will have a firsthand look at how other countries handle a global public health crisis. They may have to face unusual challenges and uncomfortable conversations, but they’ll also join a small sector of people who left their borders during this time. If that isn’t perfect for a college application essay or future TedX talk, I’m not sure what is.