COVID-19 guidelines and enforcement vary on winter study abroad programs

While some students on winter study abroad programs expressed confusion and even discontent with COVID-19 regulations, others say their program’s COVID-19 protocols have been successful.

by Emily Fagell | 2/18/22 5:15am

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by Naina Bhalla / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

Students participating in study abroad programs this winter received an “informed consent form” in September 2021, in which the Frank J. Guarini Institute for International Education stipulated various COVID-19 policies and guidelines. Enforcement and success of COVID-19 policies have varied across ongoing programs this winter — some students studying abroad have expressed no concerns with the COVID-19 guidelines, while others report confusion and frustration. Still others said they do not remember signing the form at all.

The form outlines testing and masking procedures, mandates to avoid bars or nightclubs — even when such establishments are open by law — prohibitions on visitors or guests in accommodations as well as contact tracing and isolation guidelines. 

Despite signing the form, Marc Novicoff ’22, who is currently on the anthropology domestic study program in Hawaii, said there has been “a lot of confusion” among students about COVID-19 policies.

“I kind of get the sense [that] the rules are just being used to appease various parties, but certainly I don’t think the students know what the rules are,” Novicoff said. “I don’t think any student would say, ‘Yeah, we actually cannot go to bars or nightclubs’ on any of the European [study] abroads.”

Sydney Fortner ’24, who is currently participating in the language study abroad in Barcelona, said she is “pretty sure” she signed the consent form, and added that students did go to nightclubs on a program-sponsored trip to Madrid. She said that the group follows guidelines imposed by the program or the city of Barcelona itself, but there are “very few Dartmouth-imposed restrictions,” other than masking in classes.

“If there were policies in effect, I think I would be confused, but honestly, I feel very little of the effect of any Dartmouth [restrictions],” Fortner said. “It’s all Barcelona restrictions, not as much Dartmouth restrictions, especially because we only take one class that’s actually taught by a Dartmouth professor.”

Daniela Armella ’24, who is currently studying on the LSA+ in Toulouse, France, said her program has “zero” restrictions, other than weekly testing protocols and not being allowed to leave the country — a requirement that applies to every study abroad program. Armella did not recall signing a consent form, but she said students comply with the few requirements in place.

While Fortner said that students on her program abide by the travel rule, they have been “finding ways around” the requirement. Fortner, for example, visited Tenerife, an island off the Atlantic coast of West Africa that is a territory of Spain.

Like Armella, biology professor Matthew Ayres, who leads the biological sciences FSP in Costa Rica, said he “didn’t hear anything about” the informed consent form, but that “it would be a little bit ridiculous with our program, because the only places that we are at are in the middle of the jungle.” Ayres said there were “no deviations” from testing or masking requirements, which included surveillance testing and masking in public, and that COVID-19 protocols have not had a negative impact on the program.

“[The program is] as fantastic as ever,” Ayres said. “I might say even more so because everybody was so happy about being able to work together and be together [and have] the chance to work and learn and have fun with their colleagues.”

Ayres added that students “could interact quite normally,” as they are being “tested and living in a bubble.”

Novicoff said he has more directly dealt with the implications of having signed the informed consent form when trying to arrange travel plans for his girlfriend to visit him in Hawaii. Novicoff wanted his girlfriend to stay in his accommodations, but was told by the program’s faculty director that his girlfriend must lodge separately, which would have cost her $1,000.

While Fortner said that COVID-19 restrictions have not impeded the Barcelona program, she added that the virus itself has caused disruptions to the program. Fortner said almost every student on the trip has contracted COVID-19, with seven out of 17 at one point being infected at the same time. But she said the College “handled [the situation] pretty poorly,” explaining that they lacked “a plan” and appropriate accommodations.

“They had a [COVID-19] apartment, but it only had two beds and it fit [either] two girls, two boys or four girls, four boys,” Fortner said. “And we only have about four boys on the trip, and we have 13 girls.”

In turn, Fortner said she was forced to quarantine with her host parents, who ultimately tested positive for COVID-19.

In Toulouse, Armella said students had two options for isolation upon testing positive for COVID-19: isolate alone with their host or relocate to a hotel paid for by the College and the Dickinson Center in Toulouse, the agency that “planned their entire program.” 

According to Novicoff, students who test positive for COVID-19 isolate at a community college in Oahu, Hawaii where “they wouldn’t let you leave your room at all, not even to go outside.” Novicoff added that students “don’t quarantine in the events of exposure,” although the informed consent form technically includes this provision. 

Ayres, on the other hand, said students in Costa Rica tested for COVID-19 regularly and have remained negative, noting that his program had “dozens” of meetings with the Guarini Institute to ensure it could run safely and smoothly. Ayres added that Bill Frederick, a health and safety professional with the Guarini Institute, visited each of the program’s stations in Costa Rica to “personally assess the health and safety risks.”

“The Guarini Institute did an amazing job,” Ayres said. “We would’ve never been able to do this otherwise ... I’m not aware of any discontent at all from our students.”

Other programs normally scheduled for this term remain currently suspended. This includes the CASA Cuba exchange program, but government professor and faculty director Lisa Baldez emphasized that the program is set to run again as planned next fall and winter/spring in the 2022-2023 academic year — something she is “really psyched“ about. 

Baldez added that she has “such faith in the staff at Guarini” in terms of “their knowledge of risk assessment and what’s going on on the ground in particular countries.”

Guarini Institute executive director John Tansey did not respond to requests for comment. Guarini Institute staff did not respond to requests for comment sent to the institute’s email. 

Correction appended (Feb. 18, 11:40 a.m.): A previous version of this article implied that the CASA Cuba exchange program had been suspended indefinitely. It has not; it will run again as planned in the 2022-2023 academic year, according to faculty director Lisa Baldez. The article has been updated. 

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