USAC building on Virginia Street

Mason Solberg/Nevada Sagebrush
The USAC building as it stands on Feb. 25. UNR has decided not send students into study abroad programs during the spring due to the ongoing pandemic.

Students currently attending the University of Nevada, Reno won’t be allowed to study abroad in the spring 2021 semester, according to an email sent out to some students on Thursday, Oct. 15. 

The email was sent to students already enrolled in a spring 2021 study abroad program with the University Studies Abroad Consortium. There were 66 UNR students enrolled in spring study abroad programs as of Oct. 15, according to data provided by USAC.

“While conditions may improve, the pandemic is a very fluid and erratic situation. For this reason, the University leadership decided to cancel study abroad programs early enough to allow students to make alternative plans,” Dr. David Shintani, the UNR Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, wrote in the email. “However, we want you to know that the University is a strong believer in the value of USAC programs and encourages you to defer to another term or reapply to study abroad with USAC when conditions allow.”

UNR isn’t the first university affiliated with USAC to pull the plug on spring study abroad plans. 

Universities including Fresno State, University of Cincinnati, University of the Pacific, University of Arkansas, Clemson University, Loyola University Chicago and University of Maryland have decided to restrict students from traveling abroad in the spring. 

Other colleges are still assessing the constantly-changing circumstances. The University of Iowa said no student would be able to participate in USAC programs starting on or before Jan. 15, but programs starting after that date would be reevaluated in November. Administrations at University of Idaho and University of Nevada, Las Vegas are still evaluating the risks. 

California State University, Chico students are only allowed to participate in a select few programs, including USAC’s Chiang Mai, Thailand program, according to Jennifer Gruber, Coordinator for Study Abroad and Exchange at CSU Chico. Students at the University of Maine aren’t allowed to travel until March 20, 2021. 

But is it safe for students to study abroad? No, says Dr. Steven Zell, a professor of internal medicine at the UNR School of Medicine.

“I would say the future only looks worse, more dangerous and traveling abroad would not be recommended by me as a primary care physician and as a COVID-19, so to speak, expert,” Dr. Zell said.

Dr. Zell noted the risk of studying abroad “may not be worse off than staying home locally.”

Dr. Mark Pandori, an associate professor of pathology at the UNR School of Medicine and the director of the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory, said it may be too soon to tell.

“Spring of 2021 is pretty far away. I don’t know if we know what the situation will be. I would predict we’ll still be dealing with this. But you know, it’ll be really easy to know the answer to that question as you approach that time,” Pandori said. “In early spring, I would say your chances of safely going anywhere on planet Earth approach zero. If you’re talking about starting to go later, April or May or June, that’s a total mystery because it depends on how bad we really got hit in November, December, January.” 

USAC is moving forward with in-person programs this spring in China, Costa Rica, England, Ireland, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Scotland, South Africa, Sweden, Thailand and Uruguay. 

Programs in France and Spain are running with modifications. 

“Obviously, we’re a study abroad organization, and we believe very strongly in study abroad. Always, of course, we want to emphasize health and safety of our students is our number one priority. However, there are multiple locations around the world where the COVID cases are quite low, and in fact, much lower than in the US, and where the crisis is being handled and managed quite well,” said Alyssa Nota, USAC president and CEO. “We felt confident and comfortable that students would still have a successful and safe and healthy experience.” 

According to data provided by USAC, there are currently 171 students enrolled in spring ‘21 study abroad programs. In spring 2020, 1,345 were enrolled, with 89 students from UNR. In spring 2019, 103 students from UNR were enrolled, with 1,334 total students enrolled in USAC programs. 

A number of safety measures have been added to keep students safe, said Nota. The USAC pre-departure orientation will be held virtually, for example, and students studying abroad will be required to view a COVID-19-related webinar. USAC also has a three-person Health and Safety Team, with one member in possession of an after-hours emergency phone. Each specialty program location has detailed reopening guidelines, according to USAC. 

And in the event of a spike in cases, Nota says USAC will follow the guidance of the CDC, the U.S. Department of State and local authorities. 

“If they’re able to stay there and take their courses remotely from their homestay, from their apartment, then that would be an excellent solution,” Nota said. 

As of Thursday, Oct. 15, students at USAC-affiliated universities—including Fort Lewis College, Hunter College, Northern Arizona University and University of Florida—will be allowed to study abroad in the spring. 

For those still studying abroad, Dr. Zell says it’s important to follow all COVID-19 safety precautions, including washing your hands often, avoiding large gatherings and wearing a face covering when around others. 

“A typical mask like a surgical mask that you see a lot of people wear, it doesn’t fit really tight. It’s really used historically to prevent you from contaminating someone else by coughing up a large droplet,” Dr. Zell said. “So if you’re worried about you getting infected, you’ve got to do something better than a surgical mask. You need to wear a respirator and respirators usually come in this N95 category that are NIOSH approved.”

Dr. Zell also suggested keeping an eye on the most recent COVID-19 data in the study abroad program’s host country, specifically the seven-day trailing average. 

“With the seven-day trailing averages, that kind of tells you what’s going on. So if that curve is beginning to slow down, then you can assume the epidemic’s either burning out, getting under control due to some type of country’s policy with shutting down the economy,” Dr. Zell said. “[If] the curve is going up exponentially, that means your risk is only going to increase.” 

Dr. Pandori suggested keeping an eye on the 14-day test positivity rate. If the area has a 14-day test positivity rate of five percent or less, cases are considered to be under control, Dr. Pandori said. 

“I think the thing that people fail to remember about infectious diseases, it’s not just about you. It’s about wherever you go, whether you know you’re sick or not, as protecting other people,” Dr. Pandori said. “Do you want to be in an area that loses control of the virus? The answer is no. Do you want to get this virus? Well, you might say you don’t care, but the answer should be no.”