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Lawrenceville School, University of Alabama at Birmingham Refined Strategies for Study Abroad

July 2022
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Note: This article highlights the experiences of two United Educators (UE) members and doesn’t represent UE risk management or legal advice.

When resuming their study abroad programs, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, N.J., began weighing several additional pandemic-related factors to determine the safety of potential travel locations. 

Both institutions changed their review processes to include the location’s health care system capacity and its COVID infection rate as factors in whether to permit travel.   

Lawrenceville, UAB Adapted Their Review Processes  

Before the pandemic, Lawrenceville School primarily examined State Department, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), and International SOS guidance about whether a location would be safe for study abroad. But after deciding to resume travel in spring 2022, the private boarding and day school now considers Our World in Data and the IHME, which provide in-depth data on COVID cases, hospitalizations, deaths, and hospital resource use. The sites also can compare COVID rates in potential travel areas to rates near Lawrenceville, says John Hughes, Lawrenceville’s Director of Experiential Education Programs. 

“Instead of solely considering a country’s infection rate, we review infection rates within a specific county or state where travel is under consideration,” Hughes says. “Comprehensively reviewing data and other information helps us make better informed decisions about approving travel.”  

In the past only a State Department level 3 or 4 warning or CDC warnings of level 3 or above triggered a heightened UAB review process. Back then, UAB’s review process didn’t delve into nuances of why the country had a 3 or 4 rating. 

COVID introduced a lot more variables to consider. Now every trip abroad triggers heightened reviews.  

“It used to be primarily security-related risk — crime, terrorism — that we looked at when we were looking at a country. And now we also look at not just the country’s COVID rate but we also look at their health care system. If you get COVID in a destination, are you able to receive the medical treatment that you need? Some places may not have a very high COVID rate, but their health care system might be stressed,” says James Erwin, Director, University Risk Management, in UAB’s Office of Risk Management & Insurance. 

UAB continues reviewing these factors during the study abroad program itself, while the students are already abroad. 

The university’s education abroad director “keeps tabs on the destinations where we have travelers, and we also subscribe to International SOS’ security and medical alerts, which provide real-time updates and information for countries where we have travelers,” Erwin says. 

Protect Your Institution in Case Pandemic Worsens  

As a fallback if the pandemic worsened before spring or summer 2022, Lawrenceville leaders began purchasing refundable airline tickets — something they never did pre-COVID.

UAB also purchases refundable airline tickets and added a quarantine benefit to the university’s global medical policy. If a student or faculty member who’s traveling tests positive and must quarantine or isolate, and that person incurs additional expenses because of their quarantine, the quarantine benefit covers those additional expenses. This has been a helpful step as UAB has had a common experience of students or faculty testing positive the day before they’re scheduled to return to the United States — forcing them to spend more nights in hotel rooms abroad.  

More Strategies When Resuming Study Abroad 

Based on their experiences at Lawrenceville and UAB, Erwin and Hughes recommend institutions consider these strategies when resuming study abroad: 

Put COVID-Related Contingency Plans in Place  

UAB advises faculty and students in advance of travel that they should pack as though their trip will last many days longer than expected (with extra medication and disposable contacts, for example) in case they get COVID.  

“For an institution with any sizeable traveling party — say greater than three — it’s almost not a question of if one of the travelers will test positive, but rather how many of the travelers will test positive during the trip,” Erwin says. “Have a plan in place for how you’re going to react.” 

Lawrenceville designates a faculty member to stay behind if a student has COVID and can’t fly home with the rest of the group. 

“And then we will work with a vendor — if we’re using a vendor — and the parents and the school and International SOS to figure out the best plan for that student and their symptoms,” Hughes says. “Do we help the parents fly over, do we fly somebody else over to sit there, do we need to get them into a hospital, do we need to find an evac to get them home, do we ride out their 10 days [of isolation] and then get them home?” 

Examine Hospital Bed Use 

Lawrenceville now identifies whether areas under consideration for travel are approaching their capacity for hospital bed use. 

“The ethical dilemma of travel has come in much more profoundly for me,” Hughes says. “Can we travel to a destination without negatively impacting resources that a community needs? If there’s a high COVID rate and the hospitals are full, I don’t want to take resources to manage the broken leg of our student. Similarly, I want to make sure that in a destination we’re going to, is our student’s broken leg going to receive the medical care that we need because the hospital isn’t overwhelmed?” 

Consider Examining Vaccination Rates in Travel Locations  

UAB views countries’ vaccination rates including within specific regions where travel is under consideration.  

Leadership of UAB’s academic medical center believes vaccines are effective in decreasing the severity of COVID-related health issues, thus reducing the stress on health care providers and systems. Therefore, university leadership “gives strong consideration to locations where vaccination rates are higher,” Erwin says. 


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