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Sunday, Jan 16, 2022

Middlebury sends students to schools abroad despite Covid-19 safety concerns

When Piper Boss ’23 reached out to Middlebury with concerns about studying abroad in Spain — then a country classified by the State Department as “Level 4: Do Not Travel” — she was informed by her abroad coordinator and Dean of Students Derek Doucet that she had two options: go to Madrid or take a leave of absence. 

Concerned about the rise of Delta variant Covid-19 cases in late summer, a number of Middlebury students questioned the safety of their plans to study abroad for the Fall 2021 semester. When they inquired about withdrawing from their international programs and re-enrolling at Middlebury, they were informed that Middlebury’s over-enrollment precluded the possibility of returning to the Vermont campus.

“My family and I were very nervous for me to be living in this large metropolitan area and interacting with local people, which is a large component of abroad programs because the goal is language immersion,” Boss said.

Boss had planned to begin her semester in Madrid in mid-August. Covid-19 cases spiked in Spain toward the end of July, prompting the U.S. State Department to announce its Level 4: Do Not Travel classification on July 26, 2021. 

According to Boss, the administration at the C.V. Starr School Abroad in Madrid informed the fall enrollees that the only way the program would be cancelled was if Spain closed its borders to international travel. Covid-19 vaccination, Boss also learned, was not a requirement for host families.

The vaccination rate in Spain has since increased, with 80% of the population having received at least one dose as of Sept. 21. Boss was placed with a vaccinated host family. Thus far, her experience has been positive, but she noted that her time could easily have been much more dangerous and felt that Middlebury did not seem to care about this possibility.

“Considering that Covid is still very much a problem in most of the world, it just seemed like there was a huge lack of forethought for international programs,” Boss said.

Eliza King Freedman ’23 and Abby Schneiderhan ’23 faced similar circumstances, having planned to study abroad in Rabat, Morocco.

Like Spain, Morocco was classified as a Level 4: Do Not Travel destination on Aug. 23, 2021. As of that date, 48% of the population had received at least one vaccine dose, and as of Sept. 22, 59.2% of the population had received at least one dose. Host families were not required to be vaccinated, and the country currently enforces a 9 p.m. curfew that has been in place since Aug. 2. 

Despite serious concerns for physical and mental health when traveling to a Covid-19 hotspot with strict public safety measures in place, King Freedman felt she had no choice but to go ahead with her original plans — having received no assurance from the administration that she would be permitted to return to Middlebury. 

“I just feel like I couldn’t actually make an informed decision about whether or not it was safe to come [to Morocco] because Middlebury essentially took away any safety net we had throughout the process,” she said. 

Schneiderhan made what she called a “now-or-never” choice to travel to Rabat. The day after she left Canada, her point of departure, the country terminated flights to Morocco. 

“One of the most stressful parts of this whole experience was deciding what to do when travel was so uncertain,” Schneiderhan said. “Had I waited another day, I wouldn’t have even been able to get to Rabat, and I didn’t have the fallback option of knowing that I would be able to go back to campus.”

Ultimately, all students whose programs abroad were cancelled or who decided not to participate in those programs were able to return to campus this fall and received housing, according to Dean of Students Derek Doucet. The college’s late summer purchase of Inn on the Green allowed for more available space at the Bread Loaf campus than expected earlier in the summer. 

By the time the college created a waiting list for on-campus housing, Boss already had plane tickets to Spain departing just four days later.

“I felt very ignored,” she said. “They were clearly prioritizing their struggle with housing over the safety of their students who were going abroad.” 

Doucet told The Campus in an email that all college decisions to run study abroad programs were based on a review of pandemic conditions in each country. 

“It sounds as though those students definitely had a difficult time working through some very difficult decisions,” Doucet said. “As we continue to manage the effects of the pandemic, we have made every effort to provide students with opportunities to study on campus and abroad when feasible.”

Ideal Dowling

Ideal Dowling '22 is an Editor at Large.

She previously served as a copy editor and Local section editor.

Dowling is majoring in Political Science and minoring in French and  History. During the summer of 2021, she worked as a consultant for the  startup accelerator Aegis Ventures and as a research assistant for  Professor Stanley Sloan as he worked on his book "De-Trumping U.S.  Foreign Policy: Can Biden Bring America Back?" In addition to her work  at The Campus, Dowling is captain of Middlebury's women's squash team  and an employee at the Middlebury College Museum of Art.