As fall semester classes come to a close, the development of the Omicron COVID-19 variant and accompanying potential of international border closure is complicating international students’ travel plans of going home for winter break. Depending on their home countries’ ever-shifting COVID-19 restrictions and regulations, students have been forced to make difficult travel decisions for winter break.
Nana Hayami ’22, who is from Tokyo, Japan, is flying home today, nine days earlier than planned, because of travel restrictions being put in place in Japan.
“Originally I was going back on the 18th, but with the variant, the Japanese government is imposing very strict restrictions, even on citizens,” Hayami said. “So, I needed to email my professors and say, ‘Is there any way I could take finals virtually?’”
Hayami is still unsure of what quarantine measures she will be required to follow as Omicron and Japan’s restrictions evolve, but currently, she will need to quarantine at home.
“I’ll just need to be at home for 14 days and just download apps, answer phone calls from the government people and make sure I’m staying at home. But some states were added in the past 24 hours, and I don’t know if Maine will be on the list [of states that will require a government-monitored hotel quarantine]. I need to keep checking.”
Many countries still have open borders with the U.S. and relatively lenient quarantining restrictions for the break, allowing students to travel relatively easily.
Noah Zuijderwijk ’25 will also be able to travel home to Amsterdam in the Netherlands. He will only be required to receive a negative COVID-19 test before flying and, because he is fully vaccinated, will not be required to quarantine.
However, as of last week, case numbers in the Netherlands are the highest they have ever been throughout the pandemic. As the Omicron variant spreads in the Netherlands, Zuijderwijk remains concerned about his future ability to return for the spring semester, worrying that the U.S. will close its borders with European nations again.
“I feel like there aren’t any big differences between me and someone who goes to California for the break,” he said. “The big difference is just my status in the United States as a non-citizen, officially registered as a non-resident alien.
I’m on a visa, which means that the U.S. can say that I can’t come back.”
For other students, like Yewon Kim ’24 of Incheon, South Korea, schoolwork impacted the decision to travel home. Before concerns about the Omicron variant emerged, Kim was hoping to fly home early to maximize time before her early return to campus for Sophomore Bootcamp. After taking into account academic considerations, though, she changed her plans to not leave early.
However, increased quarantine restrictions have made travel unfeasible, and Kim ultimately decided to stay on campus for the entirety of break.
“A few days ago, Korea made a new quarantine rule because of the new variant. It’s ten days—a very strict rule. So if I go back to Korea, I’ll just be staying for less than three weeks, which is not worth the flight ticket. And, I’m pretty sure the city will be locked down,” Kim said.
Academics played an important role in Hayami’s decision-making process as well. In order to leave earlier than planned, Hayami had to rearrange her finals schedule. She will take her exams remotely, and said she appreciates her professors’ willingness to accommodate the unpredictable situation.
“Because there’s a 14-hour time difference and [finals are] usually scheduled for three hours, [one of my professors] said I could take three hours when it’s convenient for me,” Hayami said.
Shuhao Liu ’22, from Beijing, China, also made the decision to not travel home for the break, but he did so well before the Omicron variant began to spread.
“The country still has a zero-tolerance policy, basically, in order to go back, since last year [in] March 2020,” he said.
If he went home, Liu would be required to test before and after flying and then stay in a designated quarantine hotel for two weeks. After arriving, he would still be required to quarantine another week at home in Beijing.
Similar to Kim, Liu believes that returning home to spend most of winter break in quarantine is not worth it. Instead, Liu is considering going to France with another student who has dual citizenship in France and the U.S. but he has yet to finalize his plan as cases increase globally.
“My main concern is if Omicron gets really bad to a point where countries go back to [a] locking down the border situation, at least the United States. It would be difficult for me to try and get back, unlike her because she is a citizen of the U.S.,” Liu said.
In an email to international students on November 30, Associate Dean of Upperclass Students Khoa Khuong encourages those going internationally to be cautious and prepared in case there are complications with reentry. He acknowledges that many borders have already been closed with African nations as cases continue to rise.
He also suggested international students apply for winter break housing on campus in case they are ultimately unable to travel home.
“Just when we thought COVID-19 travel restrictions were behind us and that we can breathe easier … Please know that this situation is fluid and the ban could expand in the future,” Khuong wrote.