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Imagine being a teenager in a foreign country and a worldwide pandemic breaks out.
Even worse, think of the parents whose kids are thousands of miles overseas. The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has sent thousands of foreign exchange students in the United States scurrying to get home.
Elias Reich of Germany, who was attending Bureau Valley, was one of the first locally to leave, departing for home March 19. He flew out of Moline to Chicago, where after a two-hour wait, he caught an eight-hour flight to London. He had to wait another three hours for his flight to Hamburg, Germany.
“I was a little bit worried about my last flight because I was in contact with other exchange students, who were flying home on the same day, and many of them had problems with their flights in Europe being canceled, so they had to wait for multiple hours at the airports. I was pretty lucky,” he said.
Reich said he was really happy when he saw his family at the airport in Hamburg. They drove the rest of the way to their hometown of Braunschweig, located in north central Germany. It took him a little while to get re-acclimated to his native land and tongue.
“The first days were really confusing for me because everyone was talking German and not English,” Reich said by email Wednesday. “Since I’m here, I couldn’t really visit friends because of the situation with the virus.”
Reich said, in general, everybody takes the virus really seriously. He said there are around 2,700 COVID-19 cases in the state of Lower Saxony.
“There are not many people outside. The city is like a ghost town. Everyone is at home,” he said. “Only one family member is allowed to go in the grocery store to reduce the people in the store.”
PHS students return home
Princeton High School had two foreign exchange students — Laura Becker of Denmark and Malin Sende of Norway. They received a mandate from the Education First Exchange Program on March 19 that it was requiring all of its Students in America to return home.
After having her flight bumped or delayed twice, and having to stay an unexpected night at the EF coordinator’s home in Chicago, Becker, who stayed with the Andy and Katie Dye family of Princeton, departed on her plane for home from O’Hare Airport about 5 p.m. Thursday.
“It’s been a long week for her,” Andy Dye said.
Becker was to land in Amsterdam early Friday morning, then reach Copenhagen just before noon. However, since she was arriving from the U.S. and had been on a plane and airports, she and her parents, who were to pick her up, would have to be quarantined for two weeks, Katie Dye said.
“It definitely wasn’t the ending we were expecting for her exchange year with us,” Katie Dye said. “But it was still one of the best experiences we have had as a family, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. We will forever have her as part of our family, and we can’t wait to see her when she comes back to visit next summer.”
Dye said her family had a spring break trip with Becker planned to Atlanta that had to be canceled. Sende’s journey home to Norway began with a Tuesday morning flight from Moline to Atlanta with connecting flights from Atlanta to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Oslo, Norway, and from Oslo to Trandheim, Norway.
Brock Hansen, whose family (Charmaine) hosted Sende in Princeton, said they know she landed in Oslo early Wednesday morning Princeton time.
Upon returning home, Sende was mandated into a 14-day self-quarantine, Hansen said.
The Hansens were sad to see Sende’s stay end so abruptly as they, too, had a trip planned with her.
“We were taking her to Disney,” Brock said. “She was looking forward to prom and graduation along with Disney.”
He said Sende was also disappointed not to be able to play for the PHS soccer team, if there is a season.
Staying in the U.S. for now
Putnam County High School exchange student Luna Gonzalez has not yet left the U.S. to return to home to Madrid, Spain, and may decide against it at this time.
Andrea Crew, Illinois Field Manager for International Cultural Exchange Services, which is the exchange program Gonzalez used to study abroad, confirmed the program is not forcing students to return to their home countries.
It’s up to the students and their families to decide what they want to do. Crew said while some of the students in her region made the decision to return home, Gonzalez is still deciding what to do.
Gonzalez has the option to complete the year through online classes here in the U.S. or at home in Spain, if that option becomes available through Putnam County High School.
Gonzalez had been a member of the school’s wrestling team and was disappointed when a tournament was canceled due to precautions being taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Crew said Gonzalez also had hopes to go out for track and field this year, and was disappointed to have missed that opportunity.
When exchange students are feeling stressed about the current situation and concern as to what is going to happen, Crew said she reminds them they can return home at any time and that there is no protocol in the U.S. that can prevent them from doing so. Right now, she’s encouraging students to stay and wait it out as they may have regrets later, learning schools reopened and they had already left and never got to finish. Plus, there’s the thought that even when they return, they still will need to follow similar shelter-in-place protocols to prevent the spread of the virus.
Rotary Youth Exchange officer Scott Shore noted Valentina Daza Gutierrez, of Colombia, has been hosted by our Rotary Club since August, attends PCHS, will graduate in May, and returning home in July.
"Like Luna, she has been very active in school extracurricularssuch as Panteras, chorus, theatre, lead part in the would-have-been spring musical, and PCHS Interact. Our school can be proud of both girls' amazing accomplishments this year," says Shore.
"Rotary's policy is to take whatever action appears safest for the student, leaving that decision to the natural parents in consultation with the student's host family and Rotarians who oversee the program and welfare of each student. For some, travel posed greater health risks than 'sheltering in place'," says Shore. "In Valentina's case, all agreed for her to remain here in Putnam County for the present. She is hosted by Ryan and Brandy Sandberg and family. Brandy is PC Rotary past president and also serves as Village President in McNabb."