“Do not travel”, US State Department advises to stem coronavirus spread

All international travel should be avoided due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the department warned. US citizens in countries where commercial travel is still available should arrange for an immediate return to the US unless they are “prepared to remain overseas for an indefinite period”.

The advisory warned that many countries are implementing travel restrictions and mandatory quarantines, closing borders, and prohibiting non-citizens from entry with little advance notice due to the pandemic.

“Airlines have cancelled many international flights and several cruise operators have suspended operations or cancelled trips. If you choose to travel internationally, your travel plans may be severely disrupted, and you may be forced to remain outside of the United States for an indefinite timeframe,” it said.

“It means the entire industry is at a ‘shelter in place’ footing”

Chairman, president and CEO of cultural exchange and educational provider AIFS Bill Gertz described the State Department advisory as “devastating”.

“It means the entire industry is at a ‘shelter in place’ footing. Companies will need to lay off staff immediately as there is no cash coming in. However, it was the right decision as we need to defeat the virus at all costs,” he told The PIE News.

“The big question for us, the industry and the world frankly is when do the skies clear? Will it be September or sometime in 2021?

“If the schools all open in September and flights resume the bounce back will be less severe. However, consumers will be cutting back as their investments will take a hit and unemployment will rise,” he explained.

Were the crisis to continue past September then the situation “becomes dire”, Gertz added.

On March 19, NAFSA announced it has cancelled its annual conference. “The international education community faces unique, exceptional challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” NAFSA President Ravi Shankar said in a statement.

The organisation’s leadership recognises that international educators will “need an opportunity to come together during this critical time”, and NAFSA is exploring ways to “re-envision our program in the virtual space”, Shankar added.

Emily Merson, CEO of internship provider Global Experiences told The PIE News that the challenge is “how to make something good out of the bad”.

“We have a plan to try and innovate,” she said. “Most damage is going to be the big [study abroad] organisations waiving all fees for refunds and forcing small providers to follow suit, which I fear will send them under.”

“We can’t even plan for the worst case scenario because it’s unknown what that actually is”

Uncertainty continues to be a huge challenge for the sector.

“We can’t even plan for the worst case scenario because it’s unknown what that actually is,” CEO & founder of Diversity Abroad, Andrew Gordon, said.

“It’s extremely challenging to run an operation, be it an international education office at a university, a provider organisation or a consortium like Diversity Abroad when there’s this much uncertainty.”

The travel advisory is a “significant blow” to the field, he noted.

As well as further disrupting education abroad for summer 2020 – to all intents and purposes, spring is already ‘cancelled’ – this can add additional downward pressure on international student enrolment, Gordon stated.

“Global learning will continue to be a valuable component of a well-rounded education,” he noted. Is education abroad going away? No.

“International students will continue to enrol at our universities. But this unexpected and unprecedented situation is making all of us rethink and redefine what global learning is and how we deliver such opportunities in an inclusive way.”

He added, “Ultimately this will position our field to serve a greater population of our students going forward.”

Chair of Study Texas, Jessica Guiver, noted that many institutions have already cancelled or postponed spring international student recruitment travel by this point.

“The most recent Department of State advisory “do not travel” anywhere won’t have much impact in the short-term [for recruitment],” she suggested.

Is education abroad going away? No”

“The longer it stays in place – and the longer we don’t know when it will change – it will have a massive impact on future travel,” Guiver explained. “No one knows how long this could go on.”

The sector is “working furiously” to put virtual outreach activities and events in place, she added.

“A number of platforms (such as Cialfo and Udentity) are offering virtual college fairs free to all participants, and I know I am going to be offering more virtual info sessions to our applicants.”

For other institutions, its a “mixed bag” regarding the autumn 2020 semester.

“Some have already announced that autumn 2020 applicants can defer to spring 2021 or even autumn 2021. Some are saying it’s too early to tell and right now all they can focus on is what to do in the next couple of weeks. Some are carrying on as usual and haven’t made any announcement,” she told The PIE.

Many institutions will be encouraging students to defer until the spring semester in January if they are available.

“With the possibility that the Department of State is going to shut down embassies and consulates worldwide, new applicants won’t be able attend visa interview appointments anyway, even if the autumn 2020 semester goes ahead as normal,” she warned. “There are so many aspects of this crisis to consider.”

Students who plan to start studies in the US in the coming autumn should get in touch with their institutions as soon as possible to get clear guidance.

“I am trying to respond to my applicants within a couple of hours, because I know they are worrying and it’s on their minds and they want an answer quickly,” Guiver added.

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