Students on Rotary Club exchanges have been told to remain in their host countries during the COVID-19 pandemic. (File photo)

B.C. Rotary exchange students told to ‘shelter in place’ through COVID-19

Participants concerned about being stuck, visas running out

Participants in the Rotary Youth Exchange from Vancouver Island have been advised to stay in their host countries, despite the federal government’s calls for Canadians to return home amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

A memo sent out by It’s Your World, Travel! (IYWT), the agency that handles all Rotary exchanges, and an official statement on the Rotary Youth Exchange website both told students to remain where they are for the time being.

Global Affairs Canada suggested Saturday that Canadians should hurry home while they still have the chance.

“Airlines have cancelled flights. New restrictions may be imposed with little warning. Your travel plans may be severely disrupted and you may be forced to remain outside of Canada longer than expected,” the ministry said in an email to registered Canadians abroad.

IWYT recommended that participants in the Rotary Youth Exchange program stay with their host families “for at least the next several days — perhaps the next several weeks.”

“We have had students attempt travel this weekend, only to have some be stranded somewhere along the way,” read the memo from the agency. “We don’t want that to happen to any of you.

“And that is why the IYWT team recommends that we NOT book students into that confusion and potential danger over the next few days,” it continued. “(If you do decide to find your own tickets, PLEASE post those plans on our message board so that your Rotary family can see them!)

“This is a major storm and we cannot forecast how long it will last; our advice is to ‘shelter in place.’”

Rotary District 5020, which covers Vancouver Island and northwestern Washington, echoed IYWT’s message on its Rotary Youth Exchange website.

”The travel company that our district works with, It’s Your World Travel (IYWT), recommends leaving students where they are because it is becoming increasingly difficult to get students home,” read the message, signed by Campbell River Daybreak Rotary Club president Ron Fisher on behalf of the Rotary Youth Exchange District 5020 team. “Travel increases the risk of spread of the virus. The reality is everyone is safest to stay where they are, practice good hygiene and social distancing. This is how we will help ‘flatten the curve’, and keep this disease from overwhelming our health care system.”

The message acknowledged that each situation is unique, and that it is the right of participating families to bring their children home, and added that Rotary will do what it can to help and be of guidance.

“Some outbound students are being sent home by their host districts,” the message stated. “Again, we don’t agree that is prudent, but we will work to ensure that our student gets home safely. We are facing an extremely challenging time, but together we will manage.”

A former participant in the Rotary Youth Exchange program from Vancouver Island, who asked that her name not be used, said that she is in touch with current participants in Italy, Denmark and elsewhere in Europe, who are worried and uncertain about what to do.

Participants she has spoken to know they would have to self-isolate for 14 days if they opted to return home, but that they would prefer that situation to being stuck out of the country indefinitely. She also noted that the students are on visas that could run out before the pandemic is over.

“It’s upsetting and unnerving, considering how things are escalating,” she said.

District 5020 governor Maureen Fritz-Roberts, from the Rotary Club of Comox, said that Rotary is monitoring the situation as it evolves.

“The health and safety of our students, members and the public is Rotary’s first priority,” she wrote in an email to Black Press. “We are working closely with local embassies, consulates and public health authorities to understand how recent measures taken to address the COVID-19 may impact our students’ travel home. We are also working with students’ parents and guardians to determine whether they should remain or if there are alternative ways to ensure they can travel safely, including determining the safest route for students to travel home. For those students staying on, we are in regular communication with them and their host families to ensure they are safe and engaged while practicing social distancing or during school closures.”

It was unclear if other Rotary districts were following the same protocol as District 5020.

“As the COVID-19 coronavirus continues to spread, many of Rotary’s districts are making decisions to either end exchanges early or hold students in place as they learn more from their local governments or as travel plans have become impacted,” Fritz-Roberts said. “Given the dynamic nature of this ever evolving situation, Rotary International is not requiring that all students return home or stay in place, as we believe — and have seen over the past few weeks — that our local program administrators are in the best position to make these decisions for each individual exchange student based on the situation locally and the unique risks to both traveling home or remaining on exchange.”

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