Just as study abroad was beginning to get back on track after Covid-19 shut down most international programs, it’s been thrown a new curve ball — by the U.S. Department of State.
The State Department announced last week it was revising its foreign-travel advisories for U.S. citizens to rely more heavily on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Covid information. The result: Eight in 10 countries worldwide will now be designated “level 4: do not travel.”
For colleges and program providers, the revamped advisories are an unexpected complication. The State Department guidance factors heavily into risk assessment for education abroad; some institutions prohibit travel to level 4 countries. And students and families may balk at going to places with State Department warnings. Could 80 percent of the globe be effectively off-limits because of the updated designations?
Before the revision, about 15 percent of countries were labeled “do not travel.” All five of the most popular destinations for American students — France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK — are now in level 4.
While the State Department acknowledged that the updates meant a “significant increase” in level 4 countries, it noted that the new labels do “not imply a reassessment of the current health situation in a given country” but rather reflect a greater reliance on CDC assessments.
John Lucas, president of ISEP, a study-abroad and exchange provider, said that the unexpected revamping of the advisory system had thrown planning into “chaos,” even as the availability of Covid vaccines had made the resumption of international study seem more possible:
“By simply merging CDC and State Department warning levels, overnight the U.S. government created a travel crisis when there is no objective change in the situation. Covid is still everywhere and travel is a calculated risk. What has changed is vaccination rates, which are now quite high.”
ISEP was able to send 200 students abroad during the spring semester, thanks to tough guidelines, close monitoring, and strong coordination with overseas partners. But some ISEP institutions may shut down travel due to the advisories, Lucas said.
One director of study abroad told me she expected any country with a “do not travel” designation to be no-go for her public university. The university’s travel-risk committee had made the decision that petitions by students — and by faculty and staff members — to go to level 4 countries would not be approved, and based on discussions, she didn’t think that would change with the new advisories. She said she hoped that warning levels could be lowered in time for fall study.
But the director of international health and safety at another institution told me that she anticipated her college would allow travel to at least some level 4 countries because the new advisories didn’t represent an elevation in risk. (Both administrators asked that their universities not be named because official decisions had not yet been made.)
State Department assessments are one of many data points her institution uses to made education-abroad decisions, the health and safety director said. For Covid information alone, she looks at multiple sources, including the World Health Organization, the European Center for Disease Control, and Johns Hopkins, and she expects to continue to evaluate countries and programs on a case-by-case basis. “It’s nuanced,” she said.
How is your college or program planning for study abroad? What impact will the State Department advisory have? Share your perspective — as well as feedback, news tips, and story ideas — with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.