COVID-19: What happens when going home is not an option?


Emma Smith ’21 waits to fly home from Peru. Photo courtesy of Smith.

Liam McMahon, Managing Editor

As the world shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic during the second and third weeks of March, students on study away and international students on campus faced two almost impossible questions: should I go home? How do I get there?

For students in both categories, there was an additional factor at play: the border closures instituted by countries across the world looking to stem the tide of the pandemic, and their resulting impact on commercial air travel. 

Across Latin America, countries reacted to the threat of COVID-19 by closing their borders to both international visitors as well as their own citizens. Between Sunday, March 15 and Tuesday, March 17, Ecuador, Peru and Guatemala all prohibited entry, which effectively ended any air travel out, stranding foreign visitors and those who might need to leave.

At the same time those countries were deciding how to combat COVID-19, so were Macalester and countless other institutions of higher education across the United States. 

President Brian Rosenberg notified students, faculty and staff on Wednesday, March 11 that the college was extending spring break for an additional week. The extension would give faculty time to prepare for remote learning in case the Minnesota Department of Health recommended colleges and universities halt in-person classes.

Days later, at 4:01 p.m. on Monday, March 16, Rosenberg notified the campus community that the college was indeed “mov[ing] all classes to remote learning” for the rest of the semester as well as requiring all students who could to leave campus and canceling in-person commencement.

For many international students, that decision came too late to get home.

“There was a lot of tension going around and a lot of panic,” Antonio Barreras Lozano ’22, a Mexican citizen who lives in Antigua, Guatemala, said. 

Barreras Lozano thought about going home but wanted to remain in St. Paul so long as there was a possibility of in-person classes. He decided to remain in Minnesota for spring break, and now will stay until at least May. Although acknowledging that it was a difficult decision, he thinks the college should have moved to remote instruction earlier.

“It was gonna get worse, but I think everyone was holding onto hope it wasn’t going to get this bad,” he said. 

Border closures also stopped Sam Ryckaert ’20 from going to stay with family in New Zealand. Ryckaert is from upstate New York, and a United States citizen, but five years ago his mother moved to Auckland for work. She now has permanent resident status in New Zealand, but he does not, which became an issue when New Zealand closed its borders to all but citizens, permanent residents and their accompanied dependent children on March 19.

After Macalester moved to remote learning on March 16, Ryckaert made plans to go home, which involved flying from Minneapolis to LAX, on to Fiji, and then finally to Auckland, with a total travel time of roughly 24 hours. His initial flight plan would have seen the borders close while he was in transit. 

Ryckaert and his mother quickly shifted gears and came up with a new plan: she would fly to LAX and meet him in the airport, before continuing to Fiji and Auckland so they could enter the country together. The border closure forced a flight cancellation and could have meant spending four days in the Fiji airport because Fiji is on lockdown.

Before they had the chance to fly to Los Angeles, New Zealand entered a total lockdown, which meant there was no guarantee either would be allowed to enter the country, even if traveling together. 

He now intends to travel at some point in May, as soon as the lockdown is lifted.

“If [Macalester had moved online] a week earlier, then I would probably be in Auckland right now,” Ryckaert said.

Valeria Bustamante ’20 would have considered returning home to Quito, Ecuador had she known there would not be any more in-person classes. 

“When Mac decided to close… then I was angry because I was like, ‘you know, had they said this earlier, I would have liked at least had time to think about what I’m going to do, and now I longer have that time, so it doesn’t matter what I want or don’t want,” she said. 

“I think that anger has faded, but I would have enjoyed the time to think about it.”

As Bustamante thought about going back to Quito, Maggie Jaenicke ’21 was trying to leave it and return to the United States. 

Jaenicke was in the equatorial city for an SIT program on Comparative Ecology and Conservation. The program structure included time in a classroom in Quito as well as site visits throughout the country. As the COVID-19 spread in Ecuador grew more dangerous, Jaenicke and her fellow students were on a week-long trip into the Amazon, where none of them had phone or internet service.

“We had no idea things were building up as much as they had that week,” she said.

Service returned as they made their way back in canoes, and several students in her program learned that they were being called back to the United States and that their home institutions had shut down because of the pandemic. 

Despite that, they thought there was a good chance the program would continue. Macalester was not yet recommending that students return, and SIT had not canceled.

“It felt like Macalester and SIT were playing chicken, no one wanted to make the call,” Jaenicke said.

SIT soon moved its academic programming to remote instruction, and Macalester recommended returning. However, there was a problem: with the Ecuadorian border closed, there were no flights leaving from Quito to get home on.

Jaenicke bought a flight only to have it canceled. The only way out was to work with the embassy to book a charter flight. After six days in lockdown, staying with her host family, SIT booked places for her and several other students on a charter flight to Ft. Lauderdale, where she continued on to stay with family in State College, Pennsylvania.

Autumn Campbell ’21 and Emma Smith ’21 were similarly stranded in Peru. Smith arrived in Cusco for her study away program, also administered by SIT, in late February, and although she and others were monitoring the coronavirus, few people thought it would get to Peru.

“A lot of people had this attitude that the coronavirus wouldn’t get to Peru because of the climate,” Smith said.

Campbell, on the other hand, only arrived in Peru on March 8, one week before Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra declared a state of emergency on the night of Sunday, March 15. 

Peru closed its borders the following day, and the state of emergency was initially only supposed to last for 15 days. Thinking that she would then be able to leave, Campbell purchased a plane ticket for the first week of April from United Airlines. 

United canceled the flight without her knowledge, leaving her with only one option to return to the US: a repatriation flight, facilitated by the US Embassy. 

“It was just like a roller coaster,” Campbell said.

Smith also had to wait for a repatriation flight, while dealing with another complicating factor: not knowing when, or if, her travel insurance would kick in. SIT had bought participants on her program travel insurance that would cover the cost of a repatriation flight if the US State Department issued a Level 3 Travel Advisory. 

Even though Peru was in lockdown, the State Department’s Travel Advisory was only at a Level 2. SIT seemed unwilling to pay extra to get them out, and Smith felt they struggled to adequately communicate with students about when they would be able to leave.

“It’s just this constant feeling of not knowing what’s going on, not knowing what’s happening next,” she said. 

Ultimately, both left on repatriation flights. When they returned to the United States, both were surprised to see that there were no health screenings at the airport, something that also stuck out to Jaenicke. From temperature checks and filling out health forms in Peru and Ecuador respectively, they all were surprised no one asked them whether they felt sick when returning to the US and few travelers in the country wore masks or gloves. 

Getting back to the US was not the end of the road. Campbell is still waiting to hear from the Embassy how much her repatriation flight will cost – anywhere between $800 and $2000 – while Smith was self-isolating in Washington when she spoke with The Mac Weekly.

“It kinda sucks when you can’t hug your parents,” Smith said.