By: Lora Doughty

Posted: March 11, 2021
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Staff Post

Studying Abroad: The COVID Edition


Sure, we’re all getting a little stir crazy. Running out of shows to binge, joining our friends for yet another virtual hang out, and taking every opportunity to venture outside the walls of our homes for a little time in nature with a favorite podcast like, How to Save a Planet.

Mask – check. Hand sanitizer – check.

One year ago, the onset of an unprecedented pandemic caused international travel to grind to a halt. Students across the globe prematurely ended their time abroad, returning home to a “new normal” of masks, virtual learning, and lots and lots of time at home. Our campuses sat empty, eagerly awaiting the return of curious minds and progressive environmental research. To many, study abroad felt like a distant dot on the horizon, but SFS staff continued working hard behind the scenes to make program and policy adjustments that allow us to welcome students back to our one-of-a-kind study abroad programs starting this summer.

Got questions about your own study abroad plans? We’ve compiled a list below of questions we’ve been receiving from students. We want to help you make the best decision about your study abroad plans – whether you choose to study abroad this summer or fall, during our winter study abroad term in January or perhaps a program in 2022. And did you know that SFS programs offer a more natural campus and educational setting with lectures in open-air classrooms, hands-on field exercises in the great outdoors, and plenty of open space on our mostly remote campuses?!


One of your biggest questions might be how different your study abroad program will be if you’re considering a study abroad program this year or early next year. We are in the middle of a global vaccine rollout and communities around the world are beginning to define the new ‘normal’. So, we’ll be honest with you – study abroad is going be a bit different. For SFS, all aspects of our programs are being actively assessed and adjusted to mitigate risk of infection and illness of students, staff, and the local community in which students live and learn. Below are a few ways your SFS program will be different. We’ll be sharing more details soon on our COVID updates page, so be sure to check back.

  • All students will attend a required pre-departure orientation. In addition to giving students the opportunity to virtually meet each other and ask questions, this orientation provides a thorough overview of what to expect and how to prepare for your time abroad with SFS including what the COVID-specific safety guidelines will be for your specific SFS campus.
  • Your travel to program will likely require a few extra steps – such as a pre-flight COVID test showing a negative result and country-specific entry requirements which may include testing upon arrival and a period of on-campus quarantine.
  • You’ll be asked (and required!) to adhere to all safety guidelines outlined in the pre-departure orientation and your on-site orientation. These have been designed to provide a safer educational environment for you, our staff, and community. Guidelines will vary from campus to campus but will include things like mask wearing and physical distancing.
  • Opportunities for community engagement may be fewer. Community events, such as festivals, markets, and recreational sports, will be assessed at each campus to determine feasibility and safety of attendance. Also, for now, we’ve had to put homestays on pause.
  • It’s not always learning time on an SFS program. All of our programs offer students free time to pursue recreational activities, relax, or study. But, for now, any of that unstructured free time off campus will be different, and previously included free time like Weekends Away and Mid-semester breaks, where students could travel independently, have been halted. SFS will replace these with other less structured opportunities for students during their free time.
  • Programs that previously offered excursions into neighboring countries may be adjusted to exclude these trips as border restrictions might prevent us from traveling. Additionally, even some in-country travel may need to be adjusted to accommodate modified safety protocols.
  • And, as we like to say, the elephants are not always where we expect them to be! So, students studying abroad in the coming terms need to be flexible. We may need to adjust specific program activities or field excursions to accommodate things like modified safety guidelines, field site accessibility, or changes in travel guidelines by the country.



Yes – it is very likely that you will need to mask up during much of your study abroad program. Currently, all countries in which SFS operates programs require the use of masks that completely cover the nose and mouth while in public places. The CDC and WHO continue to recommend the use of masks, even for those individuals who have been vaccinated. Additionally, we care deeply about the communities where our programs are based, so we support and adhere to those protocols that minimize risk of community transmission, including maximizing our time outdoors. Fortunately, our field-based study abroad programs are by nature outdoors with abundant activities like hiking through forests conducting species identification, visiting a great spot to hone your animal behavior observation skills, or donning a snorkel to explore the world beneath the waves. Read more about our outdoor classrooms and dining areas.


Currently, there is no single global vaccination policy for international travel. And, each country has developed their own safety protocols, vaccination and testing requirements, as well as quarantine rules. But, at this time, SFS does not require proof of a COVID-19 vaccination to study abroad on one of our programs. If the SFS vaccination policy changes, we will communicate those updates to our students and on our COVID updates page.

As the vaccination efforts continue to roll out, we may see changes to vaccination requirements across individual countries and airlines. In fact, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), representing 290 airlines worldwide, is currently developing a digital vaccine passport app that includes country-specific entry requirements, a map of testing centers, and a section for health information and testing results. Additionally, your home school may have their own set of vaccine requirements for study abroad. We will do our best to monitor and communicate these changes as they occur.


Yes. Don’t forget – these are field stations, and we try and keep our environmental footprint light. However, to accommodate CDC recommendations for shared housing, we have reduced capacity to allow for more physical distancing between beds. We expect most of your social time will be spent in our abundant outdoor spaces around campus – such as setting up chairs under the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya, hiking through our trail network in the Australian rainforest, or going for a swim in the ocean-side pool in the Turks & Caicos Islands.


Each SFS campus is unique – some are vast like our Australia Center that sits on 153-acres or compact like our Panama Center which is perched right on the ocean – but there are a few things that are the same.

  • SFS provides transportation to/from the area airport at the beginning and end of your program. After landing in a new country, you don’t need to worry how to get to campus. SFS staff will greet and escort you.
  • Almost all meals are cooked and served on campus. We have amazing cooks that are experienced in both local and American cuisine. Many campuses have open-air dining areas, and all campuses have access to snacks, coffee, and other beverages.
  • You live and learn on campus. Well, not only on campus. You will actually spend a lot of time off-campus learning in the ecosystems and communities around you, but, when you’re not doing that, your home and classroom are in the same place making the commute really easy.
  • SFS manages all of your housing. That might sound limiting, but believe us, it removes a lot of stress from the equation. We provide simple rooms that are deep cleaned prior to your arrival. If you’re on a program excursion – say to a rainforest on the other coast – SFS also arranges all of the hotels and field stations along the way with partner businesses we trust.



SFS has long been respected for our approach to safety and risk management. The health, safety, and wellbeing of our students is our highest priority. As such, our response to the challenges posed by the pandemic has been guided by years of experience, a strong culture of safety, and our dynamic and adaptable approach to risk management. Using guidance from the CDC, WHO, US Department of State, Overseas Security Advisory Council, and the Forum on Education Abroad’s Guidelines for Conducting Education Abroad During Covid-19, SFS has developed campus-specific procedures and protocols for prevention and management of COVID-19 on our programs.

Before arrival, all students will participate in a pre-departure orientation about six weeks prior to the start of their program. The orientation will prepare students for life abroad during a pandemic, including familiarization with campus-specific COVID-19 protocols and policies. While on program, students are supported by a team of trained staff and 24/7 access to a mental health app accessible by smartphone or computer. In the event that a student requires medical attention, an SFS staff member will assist in transportation to an appropriate medical care facility. While COVID protocols may prevent the SFS staff member from accompanying a student during an appointment or hospital stay, SFS will ensure the student has access to personal care items, translation services, and the ability to communicate with SFS staff and family back home. If a student tests positive for COVID-19 while on our program, SFS will provide quarantine accommodations and support. Due to the field-based nature of our programs, academic continuity might not be an option during quarantine or isolation.

SFS requires that all students purchase and maintain their own international health insurance policy, valid in the country in which the program operates, for the duration of the program. Some countries require proof of international health insurance that provides coverage for COVID-19 and related issues during a traveler’s stay in country. All SFS students are automatically enrolled in the SFS Emergency Evacuation and Repatriation insurance plan through American International Group, Inc. (AIG). Read more about SFS insurance requirements.


Program options may shift as international travel and public health policies evolve. If SFS determines that an upcoming program must be cancelled due to safety risks or other factors, we will notify students and their home schools about the change and work with students to determine if there is an alternative SFS program that would meet their academic needs and interests. As always, SFS does not charge a fee to apply.

Check out summer study abroad programs for a current list of study abroad program options for this summer. Many programs are filling quickly as we are accepting smaller student cohorts. So, we recommend applying as soon as possible. Fall 2021 study abroad programs will also have smaller class sizes and several programs are already filling quickly, so we recommend applying as soon as possible if you are interested.

Check out more about our study abroad program model or if you’re ready to check out our available study abroad programs, head over to our Program Finder. Fall 2021 study abroad programs are available at the following locations:

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