Design by Lindsay Farb.

As the fall semester comes to an end, there are about 300 students — according to the Center for Global and Intercultural Study — getting ready to pack their bags, fly overseas and spend Winter 2022 studying abroad. LSA junior Lillie Saperman is one of them. But with the looming threat of the omicron COVID-19 variant, Saperman, along with many other study abroad students, has also registered for a full winter course load in Ann Arbor in case of cancellations.

Since she sent in her application in September, Saperman said she has been looking forward to a winter semester in Barcelona, Spain, where she could take weekend trips across Europe and sample Spanish cuisine. 

Saperman said she had not initially bothered to check her registration appointment date until she and a group of her friends — who are also planning on studying abroad in Winter 2022 — heard about the new variant over Thanksgiving Break and decided to register as a backup.

“We all were kind of like, ‘you know what, let’s just go on and register,’” Saperman said. “We have until January 4 to disenroll so we don’t get charged tuition for next semester.”

On Nov. 26, the World Health Organization labeled the omicron variant as a “variant of concern,” just a day after it was first officially identified in South Africa. Though scientists are still researching the transmission rate, vaccine efficacy and the severity of symptoms associated with omicron, the variant has currently been detected in 19 U.S. states and over 50 countries worldwide. 

When the omicron variant was first identified, CGIS director Michael Jordan said his office immediately began developing plans to support increased flexibility for Winter 2022 study-abroad students. An important tenet of these plans, Jordan said, was giving students the chance to register for in-residence classes, even if they are already enrolled abroad. 

For Winter 2022 only, study-abroad students will have until Jan. 4 — the day before the start of the U-M semester — to choose whether to drop their courses at home or abroad.

“We worked with the Registrar’s Office and Financial Aid to be able to push (the registration deadline) back so that now they have until Jan. 4,” Jordan said. “Then on the fourth if they decide they’re still going to go abroad, they can drop their on-campus registration and register for the study abroad credits. We’re just trying to build as much flexibility as possible.”

Currently, CGIS is planning on running over 30 different study-abroad programs in various European countries as well as Ecuador, South Korea, Singapore and Turks and Caicos. After sending 22 students abroad to just four countries during the fall semester, Rachel Reuter, CGIS senior international health and safety advisor, told The Michigan Daily she hopes the majority of winter programs will be able to run safely. Reuter said CGIS is expecting more reliable information about the omicron variant to be released in the next two weeks, which will help CGIS decide how to adjust each program.

“We’re fortunate enough that two weeks gives us until about right before we will go into the holiday break, and so there’s a little bit of time to learn what the public health infectious disease experts have learned about omicron,” Reuter said. “Then we will hopefully be able to make decisions.”

While CGIS is waiting to see how omicron may affect study abroad throughout the next semester, several U-M students are faced with tough decisions to make now. LSA junior Elizabeth Loeher said the limited communication from both the University and the university hosting her program in Copenhagen, Denmark, has been frustrating. 

Loeher said she received an email from CGIS at the beginning of December encouraging her to enroll in U-M classes and not to make any non-refundable purchases related to her program. She said she is stressed about making an informed decision quickly with so much ambiguity.

“One of my biggest concerns lately has just been the lack of communication,” Loeher said. “We did get one email (from CGIS) that was like, ‘Hey, we’re monitoring the situation.’ But obviously, I would want to know things like if I’d be able to travel to other countries while I’m abroad. I also heard a rumor that classes might be online for my abroad program next semester, and I wouldn’t want to go all the way abroad just to take online classes.”

With various countries responding to the variant with travel bans, restrictions and curfews, LSA junior Katie Lambert said even if her program in Amsterdam, The Netherlands is able to run, she might not want to go abroad.

“It feels very much like March of 2020 again where I’m nervous about what school and everyday life might look like,” Lambert said. “I think that (restrictions) would dramatically change the experience that I signed up for.”

In response to students’ questions about whether they can travel to other countries on the weekends, Jordan told The Daily he is discouraging students from doing so for Winter 2022. Jordan said students considering studying abroad should plan any weekend excursions within their host country in case international travel restrictions change.

“When a lot of students go abroad, they want to travel to like eight different countries over the course of the year,” Jordan said. “We’ve let everyone know that that is a really bad idea at this point in time because they could leave the country and then the country could close the borders because of COVID restrictions, so they might not be able to get back in.”

Besides being concerned about travel limitations when she is in Spain, Saperman said she is also anxious about subleasing her apartment in Ann Arbor. Saperman said she and her four roommates were planning on subleasing their house while they are all abroad. But if their programs get canceled, Saperman said she’s worried they will not have a place to live.

“The big thing that I keep hearing among my friends is the housing situation,” Saperman said. “We have five freshmen girls that want to take over our leases. And they’ve all signed on their end, but the five of us all haven’t signed yet because we feel like this week’s gonna be the week that tells us what’s going to happen.”

For now, Reuter said she is advising students to get a COVID-19 booster shot and to monitor their emails for updates from CGIS and the partner universities — even over the holiday break.

Reuter said CGIS will email students about any changes to their Winter 2022 programs as soon as their office is made aware of them. As students decide whether to pursue studies abroad or at home this winter — or even looking into the summer — Reuter said to be aware of the potential risks and uncertainties that come with studying overseas during a pandemic.

“We want everyone to have the opportunity to study abroad, but there is an inherent risk involved with going abroad —  at any time — but particularly right now,” Reuter said. “Whether they’re applying for Winter or Spring/Summer, students need to assess their own personal risk tolerance and decide whether or not this is the time for them to be abroad.”

Daily Staff Reporter Roni Kane can be reached at ronikane@umich.edu.