Coronavirus: how are study abroad programs managing the outbreak?

17 March 2020

Whether you are a student, teacher or university, the coronavirus is having a huge impact on study abroad programs, but it isn't all doom and gloom. We know that as society becomes increasingly global, many universities are looking to help their students gain vital international perspective and experience through study abroad programs. Others look to extend successful educational programmes internationally through local satellite campuses. Cultural exchange programmes may also bring flows of international students to the home campus. 

These global programmes enrich student experience and campus life but even calm times can raise many operational and legal issues. The recent advent of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has hit two areas of the world where many universities have study abroad programmes particularly hard: Asia and Europe. Managing the risks involved in a constantly developing situation may test the capacity of even long-standing providers.

Are your crisis management plans effective?

Most colleges and universities have sophisticated crisis management plans that gauge risk across the institution and plan for the worst, from terrorist activity to a natural disaster. Hopefully global programmes and entities are fully incorporated in this plan, but even if they are, institutions will want to consider some of the following questions:

  • Your core team - who is part of the core crisis management team and how will they communicate efficiently and promptly? 
  • Affected entities and people - who (students, faculty, adjunct/contractors) is where in the world?
  • Does the home institution, or any distinct affiliated entities running programs, have local regulatory obligations? A UK charity running a program might consider if a Serious Incident Report to the UK Charity Commission becomes necessary, for instance.
  • The power of information - what are the key sources of information on the outbreak you will rely on? Is the core team linked in to sector bodies and peers that may be sharing updates?
  • Communicating to staff, students and parents – are good channels open for getting information from and to those directly affected? What about parents?
  • Wellbeing & pastoral care – what resources and care may be needed to ensure those not directly affected are supported?
  • Local partners – who are our local partners and what have we agreed with them? This can be complicated where both students and faculty may be placed into a foreign institution under the terms of an agreement.

What happens in the event that the program is suspended or cancelled?

Institutions may inevitably need to consider suspending or cancelling some programming, and this may involve:

  • Closing study abroad centres for the short or medium term
  • Arranging travel home for students and home-campus faculty
  • Cancelling lectures, concerts or other events
  • Cancelling study trips to affected areas and discouraging personal travel to such places
  • Self-quarantine arrangements for returning students and faculty
  • Online course provision to ensure students can continue study, where possible
  • For an international branch campus, having regard to local regulatory guidance

Where an event involving a third party contract has to be cancelled, for instance venue hire for a large conference or meeting, review of the termination provisions may seem like a minor issue in the wider context. However, in some cases early attention to these details can save the institution a considerable sum.

What employment issues may arise?

Institutions that engage local staff may find that they have individuals who will not have the expected work to undertake after a programme is suspended or individuals who are medically advised to self-isolate. Institutions should also inform themselves of local staff's travel plans, but do so with care and consideration with official guidance (to avoid potential discrimination issues arising, for example by making enquiries only of employees of certain ethnicities or national backgrounds). It may be appropriate for staff to work from home as a result and prudent, therefore, to check (in advance of need) that they have the appropriate set up and equipment to do so, since an employer's health & safety obligations under local law may extend to homeworkers. Agreements and policies in place should be checked before any action is taken. Institutions should also confirm any general duties local law may impose, which may be very different to the US regime.

How to handle medical data efficiently in an emergency

Institutions may be called on to handle medical information about students, faculty or staff which falls within the definition of sensitive or special category data under data protection laws, including the EU GDPR.

While it is unlikely that data protection rules would prevent the sending of communications that are necessary in an emergency situation to protect an individual's vital interests, institutions should be aware of the regimes that apply to the personal data they hold. They should ensure that they do not disclose more information than is necessary to safeguard their students, staff or the public and not collect or share health data in a privacy intrusive manner without clear justification.

Institutions should also review the terms of participation in global programmes that students have agreed to – a student who is over the age of 18 may in some cases prefer that their medical information is not shared with enquiring relatives.

Will visas be affected if things get worse whilst abroad?

Students and faculty should of course be in the country on valid visas or entry permits. However, institutions should be aware that leaving the country may affect the individual's ability to return in due course.

In addition, anyone travelling should monitor the developing situation carefully. Individuals may find that they are refused entry to an unaffected area or having been admitted, cannot then return.

In the UK, the Home Office has an evolving policy to accommodate some situations where visa-holders are unable to leave or enter the UK, or who are absent from their studies due to the virus. This information is updated regularly and those with concerns should refer to the Home Office's guidance.

Important cultural considerations

Institutions with global programmes will be very familiar with the wide range of cultural differences relevant to different locales. Crisis can bring these out in stark relief as local responses to information provision, and quarantine may differ from home.

Withers has a global team of lawyers who have unrivalled experience in keys areas and jurisdictions to help weather the coronavirus outbreak with you.

This document (and any information accessed through links in this document) is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from any action as a result of the contents of this document.


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