Global rise in COVID-19 cases poses difficulty for international students

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Photo: Hong

Emerson’s Office of International Student Affairs.

By Adri Pray and Gabriel Borges

Kevin Wang hasn’t visited his family in China since August. If he wants to return, he’ll have to first endure three weeks in quarantine before spending time with them.

“I wanted to go back home,” said the first-year business of creative enterprises major. “But the thing is, in Mainland China, it’s mandatory that people from outside Mainland China have to participate in this super, long quarantine.”

All international travelers entering China are required to isolate in a government-designated hotel for the first 14 days of their stay in the country—regardless of the result of their latest PCR or rapid test—and quarantine at home for another seven days.

China is not the only country to have tightened travel restrictions in response to the latest surge of the COVID-19 pandemic—making for an unhappy tradeoff for many Emersonians with family abroad. 

Some international students have been left scrambling for feasible travel options. Others, like Wang, have to decide whether to travel at all, grappling with the choice of either going home only to be quarantined for an unknown number of days, or going much longer without seeing their family and friends.

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For Wang, trying to get home would have been almost impossible in the time frame of the college’s winter break, which was just under a month long. Instead, he opted to stay with his roommate in San Francisco.

“Emerson’s winter break isn’t that long, like 20-ish days,” he said. “It’s basically not an option for me to [go home] even if I really want to, so that’s kind of a bummer.”

Ryunosuke Watanabe, a first-year business of creative enterprises major from Osaka, Japan, elected to go home over the break, despite a similar three-day isolation period for international travelers. However, he ran into an unexpected situation when somebody on his flight tested positive for COVID.

“They told me I had two options,” he said. “[Firstly] go home and continue my self-quarantine there, and somebody from the government [would] visit my house every two days to test me wearing this astronaut-like suit. My family was really concerned about that.”

When confronted with the other option, though—which would have entailed moving to a government facility to continue his isolation until New Year’s Eve—Watanabe chose the self-quarantine.

Coming back to Boston also proved challenging. While Watanabe was in Japan, the United States changed its COVID policy for international travelers—now requiring proof of a negative test 24 hours before returning.

“I had to get proof online that I tested negative from a center, [written] in English, and that was hard,” he said. “It’s like finding some clinic here in Boston where they write [results] in Japanese. It’s challenging to find such a thing. I had to do that in Japan, and it really cost a fortune.”

Kyoko Itoh, a first-year visual and media arts major also from Japan, also had someone on her flight home test positive from the initial test done at the airport. Like Watanabe, she decided to isolate for three days in the government facility, then went home for the remaining 14 days and allowed government officials to test her at her door.

“I had to wait at the airport for like five or six hours,” she said. “During that time they made me install apps so they could keep track of where I was for the two weeks that I had to quarantine. [The officials would be outside] in a car waiting and would put a little testing kit in front of my door … I’d quickly do the test and then give it to them.”

Itoh’s return to Boston was much easier, she said—though she acknowledged running into difficulties when the college released its updated COVID protocol in order to return to campus.

“One thing I would have appreciated is being a bit more flexible with international students coming back to Boston,” she said. “When I heard it was going to be online, I was contemplating whether I should just stay home for a bit instead of coming back and doing online classes here, because COVID cases are way scarier [in Boston] than in Japan.”

Massachusetts reported 7,918 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, and a seven-day positivity rate of 10.37 percent.

In response to rising cases on-campus, Emerson announced at the beginning of the New Year that it was moving its first week of classes online. Itoh said she felt the decision was made at the last-minute, and feared that indefinite online classes would be especially difficult for international students.

Elena Viennet, a first-year business of creative enterprises major holding American and French citizenship, echoed Itoh’s concerns about the updated policy.

“It was a little bit difficult for me with how late we were told about meeting those boosters [requirements],” she said. “At the same time, the French government mandated by 24th of January, people would not be able to go into restaurants anymore without their boosters.”

As a result of the increased demand in France, Viennet said she had trouble obtaining an appointment for a booster shot before returning to Boston.

“There were no appointments in France to get vaccinated, and the day I had to get on my plane I had to run to the vaccine center,” Viennet said. “I had to wait in line for two hours and I almost missed my plane because I was trying to get my booster before I got back on campus.”

Despite her struggles, Viennet said she felt Emerson’s decision to require boosters was justified.

“I definitely think the vaccination boosters are an important part of actually being able to all live together,” said Viennet.

When the college decided to require students to be fully vaccinated by the beginning of the fall semester, Emerson decided to accept all vaccinations approved by the World Health Organization—not just the three (Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, and Johnson & Johnson) commercially available in the U.S.—as they recognized “a larger global list of available vaccines.”

“The college knows that not every student in every country has the same access to vaccinations,” said Andrea Popa, director of international student affairs. “Both last fall and summer when we made the policy that students were going to need to be vaccinated, there was [a] discussion about how that would impact international students and accommodations made for students that weren’t able to, or didn’t have access to, the same levels of vaccinations.”

Watanabe said he thought of changing his flight because the strict Japanese isolation-quarantine policy took so much time from him and his family.

“My family and I were thinking of changing my flight to the 15th, so I could wait for some sort of announcement from Emerson if the whole semester would be online, or if we’d be going back to in-person,” Watanabe said. “But I cannot wake up at three in the morning, because of the time difference, to do online [classes].”

Popa said the college made certain accommodations for students that “needed a different path.” She sits on the future planning committee, and her supervisor, Anthony Pinder, sits on COVID-related committees that discuss updated travel policies for international students.

“What we make sure of is that communication goes both ways,” she said. “We’re asked for input and we also make sure to keep administrators in the loop when there’s something that we think is going to significantly impact travel or disrupt the ability of students to travel freely.”

“We’re still requiring the same end goal for all students,” Popa said. “But we recognize that there are going to be students who need either a different timeline or a little bit of different handling.”

Payton Cavanaugh contributed reporting.