‘I just want to go home’: Omicron variant casts doubt on international students’ travel plans
International students wrangle potential travel bans, quarantines and flight cancelations when making plans for winter recess.
Yale Daily News
As the Omicron COVID-19 variant contributes to an uncertain public health situation, international students grapple with potential travel complications over winter break.
With campus set to close on Dec. 23 for winter recess, concerns are mounting among the international student body regarding travel plans. With a growing number of international travel restrictions, the possibility of institutional quarantine mandates and the potential inability to travel back to the U.S. in January, students are concerned about being unable to go home or being unable to return to New Haven.
“I just want to go home and see my family. That is all I want to do,” Ananya Purushottam ’25, an international student from India, told the News.
On Dec. 6, the Office of International Students and Scholars, or OISS, sent an email to international students instructing them to consider the risks of travel, while also making it clear that they will support students who decide to leave the country this winter. The message directed students to view the international travel reminders posted by OISS on Dec. 2 as well as the message from the Office of International Affairs, or OIA, sent to all students earlier that day.
The OIA email described that international travel over break is “indeed possible,” but poses greater risk than domestic travel, and so students “may wish to alter or even cancel … international travel plans.” It also stated that flight cancelations and new international restrictions, which can be enforced with little warning, may lead to the possibility of travelers becoming “stranded.” Their return to the U.S. at the start of next semester could therefore potentially be delayed.
“After weighing these risks against other considerations such as mental health benefits of spending the holidays with your family or having a restful time at home after a tiring semester, if you ultimately decide to travel, we would also like you to do this in the safest way possible and prepare yourself to deal with any changes and possible obstacles during your journey,” read the message sent by OISS Executive Director Ann Kuhlman and Senior Adviser Ozan Say.
Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd wrote to the News that she “expect[s]” that students unable to return to campus for the spring 2022 semester will have to take a leave of absence. Yalies on leave are eligible to re-enroll the following semester.
According to the Yale College policies and procedures website, students in good academic standing are eligible to apply for up to two terms of leave of absence during their undergraduate careers. As a pandemic accommodation during the 2020-21 academic year, the University chose not to count leaves of absence against the two-semester limit — Boyd explained that the policy again applies this year.
A Dec. 1 email to Princeton University students from Albert Rivera, director of the Davis International Center at Princeton University, took a more direct tone. Rivera explicitly mentioned the possibility that should international students be unable to return, they would be required to take a leave of absence “as there are no plans for hybrid instruction.”
He also warned students seeking visas to brace themselves for roadblocks such as limited consular appointments, appointment cancellations and delays in visa issuance.
Rivera encouraged international students “for whom this risk is not acceptable” to seek domestic family or friends to spend the winter break with, or alternatively, to apply for continuous housing on campus by Dec. 17.
Michael Hotchkiss, a deputy spokesperson at Princeton University, wrote in a statement to the News that while he was aware that the Dec. 1 email caused “some confusion and concern,” the university chose to prioritize rapid communication with international students in order to give them as much time as possible to assess their options and make decisions. Princeton is making continuous housing available to all international students over winter break at no cost, according to Hotchkiss — students receiving financial aid will have no-cost dining options available over break, too. Hotchkiss added that Princeton’s Office of the Vice President for Campus Life offers “limited funds … to address financial hardships.”
“Throughout the pandemic, the University has worked to support our international students, including helping them navigate the many challenges presented by changing government travel restrictions,” Hotchkiss wrote. “Unfortunately, the emergence of the Omicron variant has again introduced significant uncertainty regarding travel going forward.”
The News spoke to eight international students at Yale, many of whom said that Princeton’s email — which was sent three days before Yale’s Monday email — sparked concern. Yet, some also appreciated Princeton’s directness and speed in addressing the issue.
“Princeton’s email sounds very very harsh and I am sure it set off a lot of panicking on campus, so I really appreciate Yale OISS sending a more cheerful and hopeful email to us,” said Yuliia Zhukovets ’23, an international student from Ukraine.
But even with Yale’s statement of support for students who wish to travel home, some international students remain concerned. For some, one of the main fears is the possibility of an institutional quarantine being put in place in their home country. Certain countries have instituted a quarantine for travelers from specific regions due to the rise of the Omicron variant, forcing some students to grapple with this possibility for the first time.
“If the U.S. is added [to the Indian list of ‘at-risk’ countries] then I will have to spend two weeks in a random hotel which I really don’t want to do,” Arnav Tawakley ’24 said.
A two-week quarantine means students would only have at most a week and a half to spend with family. Purushottam added that if a quarantine is put in place, it does not make sense “to pay thousands of dollars to fly back home for a week.”
On Dec. 1, Neel Malhotra ’24 wrote to the OISS about the possibility of taking his final exams online so he could leave to travel back to India early. Malhotra wished to travel home as soon as possible to avert the possibility of any potential quarantine.
“I want to maximize the time I spend with my family,” Malhotra said. “Unlike most people here we do not go back as often, we do not go back for fall break, we don’t go back for Thanksgiving.”
OISS responded that there is no University-wide policy allowing this, and that individual in-person final exams cannot be proctored online unless all exams are moved to an online format.
Purushottam believes that allowing students like herself and Malhotra to take final exams online so they can travel home now is “the least they [Yale] can do.” This would be a way to assure international students could spend the break with family, instead of in a hotel, she said.
On Nov. 26, President Biden issued a proclamation suspending entry of noncitizens from eight African countries: Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The OISS email “emphasized” their inability to predict if there will be further travel restrictions, or when this one will be lifted, but stated that it is too early to “jump to any conclusions that you will not be allowed to enter the U.S. if you choose to travel.”
Five international students from Africa, two of whom come from South Africa, did not respond to requests for comment by the time for publication.
Despite Omicron concerns, Carl Bager ’25 still plans to travel back home to Denmark, unless Yale issues a statement like Princeton’s requesting that international students remain in the U.S. To cancel plans now would be hugely inconvenient, not to mention financially burdensome, he said.
“I have my plane ticket and it would be a big cost to bear [to cancel the reservation],” Bager said.
Most students to whom the News spoke wished that Yale kept its campus open over break for international students for whom it is not practical, possible or safe to go home. Last year, this was a choice for international students unable to return home.
This year, international students who want to stay in the U.S. and need housing have the option to reside in the Omni Hotel. The link to request this housing was sent in the Dec. 6 OISS message.
“If international students are unable to travel back home for any reason and if they cannot make any alternative arrangements in the U.S. to stay with family or friends, then they can request for intersession housing to stay at the OMNI hotel for the whole or part of the period when on campus residences will be unavailable,” Say wrote in an email to the News.
Yet Malhotra expressed his concern that international students not on financial aid would have to pay out of pocket to stay at the Omni Hotel for a month, which is “undeniably a lot.”
Boyd wrote to the News that hotel housing and a meal stipend would be covered for international students on financial aid. Those receiving little or no aid would have to consult with OISS.
“Whatever your decision might be regarding travel over winter break, please know that OISS, together with our colleagues at YCDO, OIA, and other units of the university, will continue to monitor the situation and send you vital information affecting travel. More importantly, as always, we will continue to support you through the upcoming holiday and travel season,” Kuhlman and Say wrote at the end of their email to the international undergraduate student body.
The Omicron variant has been detected in at least 45 nations worldwide.