The continued impact of COVID-19 on off-campus studies

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the International and Off-Campus Studies Office has been monitoring the virus and is now looking at how the emergence of the Omicron variant around the world may impact interim and spring semester off-campus studies. To determine whether or not a program will run, IOS communicates with many parties including partners around the world from academic semester hosts to travel agencies, faculty members, an epidemiologist, and campus leaders. 

In regards to the Omicron variant, Jodi Malmgren, director of IOS, said, “We’re interested in knowing about transmissibility, how contagious it is. We’re interested in virulence, how likely people are to get severely ill. We’re looking at vaccine evasion, how easily can it impact someone who has immunity either from a vaccine or from having had covid before. We don’t have enough data yet to answer those questions.”

While the Omicron variant does create further uncertainty about programs, the IOS office is working to alleviate some of student stress by offering the ability to withdraw from a program without financial penalty. Malmgren emailed students on Dec. 6 and they have until Dec. 12 at 5 p.m. to make a decision. 

While this option would not usually be a possibility this close to departure, Malmgren said, “The college has made the commitment that we want to make sure in particular low income students don’t feel pressure to do something they’re not comfortable doing because they have already spent the money to go.”

Malmgren hopes to communicate decisions about further cancellations by Dec.13 for interim programs and Dec. 15 for spring semester programs, though as more information about Omicron is discovered those dates may change. 

Earlier this year, IOS and partner programs canceled some interim and spring semester programs. In March 2020, faculty proposed 27 interim trips for interim 2022. Since then, 10 of those programs have been canceled. During a typical interim, around 540 students study off-campus, but this year that number dropped to around 330. 

Around 120 students are enrolled for semester-long off campus studies this spring, which matches the average of previous years since programs in New Zealand, Australia, China, India, Japan, Russia, and Ecuador were cancelled. Many students deferred their fall 2021 semester studies to spring 2022. Malmgren offered some suggestions for what students can do if their programs are canceled now. 

“The first thing they should do is come and talk with us if we can be of support and assistance because it is disappointing for us, too, but it mostly affects their lives,” Malmgren said. “We really just want to hear from them and talk with them, see if there are alternatives that we can begin advising for.” 

Further steps students can take include reaching out to their faculty advisor to help them with academic planning and Pamela McDowell about housing. Malmgren suggested that students can deal with uncertainty by buying refundable plane tickets, or if their program has a later state date, waiting to purchase their flight. She also suggested students follow the news about COVID-19 in their program’s country. For further information, or to express questions or concerns students can reach out to IOS at ios@stolaf.edu. 

 

miller56@stolaf.edu

 

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