Cindy Zhu

As American boarding schools’ reopening plans continue to change, young international students are forced to adapt quickly. These students completed a lengthy process of school applications, interviews and visa applications to pursue an opportunity to study in the United States. However, their status as international students may now have become a burden on many of their shoulders. 

As the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States escalated, and the federal government adopted stricter federal policies — new international students will not be allowed to take online classes in the states — international students were driven away from their school communities. They had to either sacrifice the possibility of an in-person education or the comfort of their families and homes. Although boarding school administrators presented possible reopening plans early in the summer, the tentative initial plans were drafted using vague, indirect wording so that administrators could make changes to their plans later on. 

“They were very confusing. I don’t even know if I can leave my room and go to the dining hall!” said Millie Chen, a rising sophomore at the Cambridge School of Weston from Nanjing, China. 

The lack of clarity in these plans placed international students in emotional turmoil. Team Thongthai, a rising sophomore at Middlesex School from Bangkok, Thailand, thought the school implied initially that international students could come back to the United States in his school’s official reopening plan. But that was not necessarily the case.

“Because the number of students switching completely online increased, they’ve been pushed back to a corner [to address online classes], ” said Thongthai.

Thongthai initially decided to return to campus, where he would alternate between taking in-person classes and virtual classes from his dorm. However, Thongthai eventually decided to stay in Bangkok due to health concerns and the uncertainty involved in his school’s reopening. He didn’t know where he would go if his school suddenly shut down in-person learning. He said he struggled with the decision, worrying that it would be difficult to stay involved in his school’s community. Thongthai felt neglected by his school’s initial reopening plan. He expressed frustration that he would be alienated from his friends — who had the chance to attend school in a hybrid model — and miss out on conversations with new students. 

Thongthai added, “I wanted to be either a director or actor in the fall play, and I can’t because I’m in Thailand.”

Shawn Zhu, a rising senior at Pomfret School in Connecticut from Shanghai, has stayed by himself in his family’s second home in California for five months, after his school shut down in March. He decided to remain in the United States because he predicted there wasn’t a chance for him to return to the US if he went back to China to visit his family. He was also concerned about the possible impact virtual learning would have on his college applications and his senior year. Yet he did not receive the complete reopening plan from his school until the beginning of August. The school gave him two weeks to prepare for the new semester, including a new 14-day quarantine on campus.

Chen also decided to stay in the United States because of the difficulties a 12-hour time difference would present if she went back to China — because most of her classes would meet synchronously. Even though she had wanted to stay in the United States, she felt sad and lonely from time to time in her homestay family. 

“I feel kind of sad because I can’t go back home. Especially when I saw my friend posting [pitches of] her birthday with her family,” said Chen. She said she was “very happy” until she remembered her birthday in August. 

“I was totally by myself,” Chen said. 

The uncertainties and loneliness were definitely significant drawbacks, but some international students remain very optimistic about returning to campus in the fall. 

Cindy Zhu, a rising sophomore at the Webb Schools said, “I was pretty set on going back to China because the current situation is more in control in China. Even if a second breakout was to happen, it is going to be more in control.”

She was certain that her school would support her academics through their added set of classes to accommodate the time difference. Her school has also assigned every student a personal plan coordinator who would guide the student through their individual path in the upcoming school year. 

Like Cindy, Shawn Zhu also wanted to enjoy his senior year, and he didn’t give too much thought to staying alone in the United States. Chen also said she felt relaxed for the upcoming school year because her homestay family had taken her to the beach and on hiking trips — she didn’t have to stay in her room the whole time. 

International students have started going back to school through three main methods: virtually, in-person, or via a hybrid model.