Education

Visa suspensions, travel bans may complicate high school for international students

Lyndon Institute is one of several Vermont schools with international students unsure of next year’s studies. Photo by Justin Trombley/VTDigger

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Almost 50 students from abroad have enrolled for next year’s classes at Vermont Academy in Windham County, close to a quarter of the private school’s population.

But because of the Covid-19 pandemic, those students are stuck in limbo. And so is every other international student looking to begin or continue their studies in the United States, as students, their families and educators grapple with an uncertain world. 

“There hasn’t been any good guidance from anybody,” said David Petrie, director of marketing and communication at Vermont Academy.

Vermont officials announced last week that K-12 classrooms will reopen this fall. The U.S. Department of State, however, suspended routine visa services and canceled scheduled appointments at all American embassies and consulates around the globe on March 20

Without visas, foreign nationals newly admitted to stateside high schools won’t be able to access their education come fall.

That’s worrisome for Jennifer Zaccara, head of school at Vermont Academy. Geographic and cultural diversity is a highlight of her school, said Zaccara, recalling the litany of languages she’d hear walking around campus.

“It’s like the U.N.,” she said.

International students help their domestic counterparts understand different points of view, she said, and add vibrancy to the surrounding small village of Saxtons River.

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When state officials closed schools this spring amid the initial spread of the new coronavirus, the academy switched to online learning, with accommodations for those in different time zones: teachers hosting two classes, one during the day and one at night. Students can maintain their visa status remotely, according to the school

But not without complications.

“The issue is that the rules are set up in place for a non-pandemic world,” said Petrie, the academy’s communication director. “So high school students in particular aren’t allowed to earn credits unless they are on campus.”

As of Monday, nearly 200 countries had in place either complete or partial travel restrictions, according to the travel agency Kayak. Returning students might not face the same visa problems as new students, but they may be hit by travel bans. 

And if those policies remain by the time the academy opens up, some schools plan to delay start dates for affected international students.

A promising sign is that the State Department has begun resuming some passport services, said Mike Lowe, assistant head for advancement at Lyndon Institute. Those services are for people who need a passport within 72 hours for a life-or-death emergency, the department says. But the slight progress might mean visa services could start to resume as the summer continues.

“We’re planning on them being here when we open school the third week of August,” Lowe said of the 18 international students enrolled for this year, who come from nine countries. “We’ll also have plans in place if they have to start school remotely and then transition in at a later date.”

The State Department offers an online system to check wait times for visa appointments at embassies and consulates. In many cities, such as London, only emergency appointments are being considered. 

But some have already loosened up, ever so slightly. The consulate in Montreal had a student-visa appointment wait of 64 days on Monday. At the embassy in Beijing, the wait was only eight days.

Lowe said the pandemic contributed to Lyndon’s decision to shrink its international class size down from 38 students.

Fraying relations between the U.S. and other countries over the last year had already made it tough for recruiters looking abroad, Lowe said. Covid-19 turned everything into a “horrific snowball.”

“I think, going into the uncertainty that we will have around this upcoming school year, we’re pleased with where we are,” he said. That might not be the same for other schools more dependent on tuition money from international students, he said.

“We’re a town school with a boarding program, and it’s not the other way around,” said Lowe.

At nearby Burke Mountain Academy, a small ski-focused school, a decline in international students would cause a financial dent, said Jodi Flanagan, its director of development and communications. 

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Sixteen of its 64 students next year come from abroad, Flanagan said, though she couldn’t provide specifics on the financial impact of their potential loss. 

“But even more concerning to us,” she said, “is the community impact.”

That’s what Lowe believes many of his school’s international students are thinking about, too.

“I think most of them are just thinking about next year in general and the ability to come back and see their friends and be part of a community,” he said.

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Justin Trombly

About Justin

Justin Trombly covers the Northeast Kingdom for VTDigger. Before coming to Vermont, he handled breaking news, wrote features and worked on investigations at the Tampa Bay Times, the largest newspaper in Florida. He grew up across Lake Champlain in upstate New York, where he worked for The Buffalo News, the Glens Falls Post-Star and the Plattsburgh Press Republican. He studied English and political science at the University of Rochester.

Email: [email protected]

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