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Will Exchange Students Return This Fall? 

 April 30, 2020

By  Exchange Mom Team

We have a different sort of post today, given our current lives.

Placing Bets on the Future

We're all placing bets on the outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic ... in our personal lives, our jobs, and our financial situations. We all want to know whether the emergency will fade away in a few months, or whether it will disrupt our lives for the next two years. The future of high school exchange in the U.S. (and, to be honest, elsewhere as well) is just one of the many questions and “bets” being placed today.

Here’s the short answer: No one knows.

We know it’s not a satisfactory answer. But there are many uncertainties in play when it comes to the health impacts of COVID-19, the economic impacts on business and society in many countries, and decisions yet-to-be-made by states and school districts around the country. We know the short-term effects of COVID-19 have had serious effects on international students around the world; the long-term effects on study abroad are still unknown.

What we can say at the time of this writing, from what we know and see in the U.S., is this.

  • Some schools and districts have been proceeding with their normal policies regarding admission of exchange students, reviewing and accepting as they have done in previous years.
  • Some have decided not to accept exchange students for the 2020-2021 school year.
  • Some are taking a wait-and-see approach, letting organizations know that they will take applications but cautioning that they may need to withdraw approval at a later date.
  • On the agency side of the equation, exchange organizations are accepting and processing applications, while preparing for virtual orientation meetings instead of in-person get-togethers. They’re revising their usual summer travel-to-host-country plans, telling students and host families that travel plans are up in the air.

We don’t know a lot of important pieces of the puzzle, though. We don’t know for sure when schools in the U.S. will re-open, or what kind of changes there might be in school procedures and operations. As of the end of April, a few states are considering the possibility of reopening K-12 schools before the summer break. But most have closed in-person education for the rest of the Spring 2020 term. Some have said that remote learning could continue indefinitely, including into Fall 2020. Here’s a list of closures and potential re-openings that is being updated periodically. On the other hand, some universities are — as of the end of April — announcing plans to re-open for Fall.

When schools do re-open, things are likely to look different. Class sizes will probably be smaller, with spacing between seats and desks, and social distancing requirements will be in effect. School schedules may be staggered, with students attending on alternate days. It's just not clear yet what impact any of this will have on admission of exchange students at either the high school or college levels.

With no clear timeline for putting students on planes again, study abroad providers face layoffs and uncertain futures. And when they do resume regular programming, they'll need new health and safety protocols.”

— Elizabeth Redden, Study Abroad Faces a New Reality, Inside Higher Ed, 4/28/2020.

Tracking the Uncertainties

In our “other” lives, we at The Exchange Mom work on climate change issues and how to communicate issues connected with climate change and educate the public. As part of that effort, we organize online (and downloadable) information collections for timely and important topics, using a software called “TheBrain®,” which we have found immensely adaptable and easy to use. We call these collections “External Brains,” and you can find them here.

One of these External Brains is  our COVID-19 External Brain. It’s an online collection of resources that tracks the COVID-19 uncertainties that are on the table -- and about which you’ve no doubt seen more news items than you can keep track of in your news feed. Resolution of these uncertainties will go a long way to determining when our lives can get back to normal -- or at least  to a new normal that reduces our stress and allows schools, families, and students to be comfortable with re-entering the world of study abroad.

So what do we think the key variables are? Here's a screenshot of the layout of this particular section of the COVID-19 External Brain — the Foresight section. Each heading points to relevant discussions, news stories, videos, pre-set Google searches (you can just click on the search link and see what’s new for that topic), and more.

What's the Status of These Foresight Variables?

Agreement on an Evidence-Based Strategy? There’s no real agreement on this yet. Experts range widely in their analysis of what is required in an evidence-based balancing of the public health and economic impacts of COVID-19.

Existence of a COVID-19 strategy for the U.S.? At this point, the U.S. does not have an overall COVID-19 strategy. The federal government seems to have stepped back from developing a strategy and has thrown that ball into the hands of state governors. Governors are developing their own and often very different strategies.

Infectiousness of COVID-19? The expert discussion on this topic continues to range widely, from COVID-19 being easily airborne from person to person, to COVID-19 being relatively difficult to transfer from person to person.

The magnitude of COVID-19 testing? Testing has been a weak spot for the U.S. The amount of testing has been increasing (which is good), but it’s still insufficient. Many estimates suggest a minimum number of 500,000 diagnostic tests per day is needed; some experts argue even more should be done. We’re nowhere near that number yet. There continues to be a lot of discussion of insufficient testing at the state level, while the federal response seeks to discount testing problems.

The accuracy of COVID-19 testing? As more testing is done and as testing for antibodies gets underway, the implications of poor testing accuracy has been receiving more attention. Evidence suggests significant problems with the accuracy of many of the antibody tests coming to market. So, don’t depend on them yet.

COVID-19 antibodies and immunity? There is a general assumption that having been infected will give you some degree of immunity against COVID-19, but there is no guarantee about that as of today.

The beginnings of herd immunity? Limited antibody testing in the U.S. suggests that a substantially larger fraction of the population may have been exposed to the virus than previously thought. This at least creates the possibility that herd immunity could kick in more quickly than previously assumed.

The viability of contact tracing in the U.S.? In the past week or two, we have seen a huge amount of discussion of contact tracing in the U.S. This would be good to get off the ground. However, there are significant uncertainties surrounding the practicality of contact tracing in light of inadequate testing and other variables. There are also privacy issues.

Existence of COVID-19 treatments? Still unknown. Doctors are urging patients to be very careful about self-medicating with any treatments one might read about in the media, including one of the widely cited potential treatments, hydroxychloroquine.

Existence of a vaccine? Not yet, although there is hope. This week we’ve seen reports that a lab in Oxford, England, has been working on a general coronavirus vaccine for years. Scientists there are working to adapt their research to the COVID-19 virus and think it is possible that they might have a vaccine ready to go this Fall -- many months ahead of previous estimates.

What's Our Direction?

When you put all of this together, the Foresight picture for COVID-19 in the U.S. is pretty murky. Maybe some of these variables will evolve in coming weeks in ways that work to our advantage. 

foggy weather headlights in distance

On the other hand, we could be in for a difficult summer and fall. The uncertainties surrounding these variables are large, so prediction is a challenge. The uncertainties will narrow over time, giving us some confidence in making future decisions -- including making it possible to make better bets on questions surrounding international high school exchange and college study abroad.

Unfortunately, the uncertainties for international exchange are not limited to the issues listed above. We haven’t talked about a number of things, including:

  • What will be happening in the countries where high school exchange students and college students wishing to study abroad come from?
  • Will states in the U.S. be willing to accept the financial burden of exchange students when many states may be facing bankruptcy or, at the very least, significant financial burdens after a long period of reduced economic activity? 
  • Will school districts be willing to integrate exchange students into their planning when they are not sure whether schools will be open this Fall or whether they will need to reduce class sizes, lay off teachers, or implement other “new normal” operating procedures?
  • Will families be able to afford the cost of sending their children abroad for a semester or year and will host families be able to host students in the face of the economic impacts of the pandemic and ongoing uncertainties?
  • Will exchange programs survive the economic disruption associated with the pandemic?

There is no way to reliably assign probabilities to the question of what will be happening with exchange students in the U.S. this Fall. The possibilities include:

  • A “normal” high school exchange year? Not on the table in anyone’s mind
  • A “new normal” high school exchange year, perhaps reduced in size by half: It’s possible this is what we will see in the longer term, although this probably is optimistic for the 2020-2021 school year. 
  • A “random” high school exchange year, with a significantly reduced number of students participating in an exchange year: Quite likely given current observations.
  • No high school exchange year, as decided by US and/or other governments: There’s no indication right now that students will be prohibited by law from participating in study abroad programs, but it certainly can’t be discounted.

These options are also what’s on the table at the college level. For now, it’s a week-by-week waiting game. Yet at the same time, everyone needs to make plans. For the upcoming academic year, the results are likely to be dramatically reduced participation. We’re calling that the “random” exchange year in the hope that it’s just that -- a relatively short-term blip rather than a permanent trend. In the long-term, we think a “new normal” of some kind is likely to develop. International study programs and cultural exchanges have seen ups and downs in the past; reduced travel and downturns in participation after 9/11 come to mind as an example. Programs will continue, in one form or another, as they did after 9/11.

We should hope for that.

If you’re interested, you can get free access to our COVID-19 External Brain at our External Brains website.

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