SIT Updated Risk and Safety Message for Undergraduate Students

COVID-19 has significantly altered, and continues to alter, the risk landscape all over the world. 

From the beginning of the pandemic through the current semester, SIT has adapted its approach to monitoring and managing risk to meet the dynamic challenges that have emerged. This has meant looking beyond traditional risk indicators and factoring new developments like the vaccine and updated guidance from the scientific and health community into our risk mitigation protocols. 

The U.S. Department of State (DOS) announced this week significant changes to its travel advisory system by updating the methodology used for determining COVID-19 related risks. DOS anticipates at least 80 percent of the world’s countries will register a Level 4 (“do not travel”) under this new methodology. At the same time, as DOS’s Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) makes clear, these heightened Travel Advisories are not designed to target or single out new risks in specific countries and should not be viewed “as a singular tripwire” to evacuate staff or cut programs the moment a travel advisory level is increased. Rather, the new methodology and advisories are best utilized when considered alongside other indicators and factors.

In line with OSAC advice, SIT believes the best approach to assessing and managing risk in the current environment is a holistic one. Consequently, SIT will not use DOS Level 4 as a sole tripwire for deciding whether to run or continue to run a program. Instead, SIT will continue to be informed by a deep analysis of all relevant data and information and will utilize that overall analysis to make decisions. SIT’s approach is described in the following paragraphs. 

Risk Assessment and Management Methodology

Risk Assessment

Daily, SIT monitors ongoing and evolving risks in each country including crime, terrorism, political instability and civil unrest, natural disasters, and public health matters. We rely on a variety of tools and resources for identifying and assessing actual or potential risk to students and staff. They include: International SOS (medical and travel risk ratings); the U.S. Department of State (travel advisories); the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (travel health notices); the Overseas Security Advisory Council – OSAC (Country Crime and Safety Reports); U.S. Embassies (in countries of operation); and the World Health Organization (WHO). 

During periods of heightened health risks such as COVID-19, SIT maintains a tracker (which was posted on the SIT website in the Advisor Portal on Thursday 4/22/2021) where specific indicators related to the virus are tracked and updated on a weekly basis. Key indicators include: 1. number of new daily cases; 2. number of new cases per 100,000 people; 3. mortality rate; 4. testing positivity rate; 5. WHO transmission classification; 6. International SOS risk ratings for travel, medical, and COVID-19 impact; 7. DOS travel advisory level; 8. CDC health advisory level; and 9. vaccination rates. SIT also closely monitors actions taken by the governments in the countries where our programs operate, such as movement restrictions or quarantine requirements that would potentially impact programs.

Finally, SIT leverages the expertise and knowledge of our experienced host-country faculty and staff, who provide us with updates about issues of concern and potential impact to our students and centers. Our local faculty and staff have extensive networks that include local authorities, U.S. embassy services, and informal sources—all of which help to inform our decisions about programs.

This holistic and comprehensive information is used to inform a detailed country Risk Assessment conducted for every location which SIT is considering for programs. Risk Assessments consider health risks, such as COVID-19, as well as a multitude of risks unrelated to health. The Risk Assessment for any individual SIT destination is available from SIT upon request.

Risk Committee

SIT maintains a Risk Committee comprised of senior level staff and chaired by the Director of Security. The Risk Committee uses the risk assessments to make decisions about which programs can run safely.

For approved programs, the risk assessments are updated on a regular basis to ensure that significant changes to the risk landscape are factored into planning and implementation. We have also institutionalized an approach wherein the risk assessment committee and faculty meet prior to the start of the program to finalize the health and safety protocols, in addition to maintaining regular check-ins throughout the semester and every time a risk variable goes up to ensure the program is well-supported. 

If SIT determines that a program cannot run (due to COVID-19 or any other reason), affected students and their home institutions will be notified as soon as we can to allow students to make alternative arrangements. Such announcements are generally made about 1-3 months before the start of a program. Where possible, and with the approval of students’ home institutions, affected students will be given the opportunity to transfer their enrollment to another active SIT program that aligns with their academic interests.

Risk Management Plans

When it is determined that it is safe for a program to run, the Risk Assessment is used to develop a detailed Risk Management Plan. These plans include standard SIT protocols as well as customized risk mitigation measures based on the specific risks identified in the assessment process. The Risk Management Plan for any individual destination is also available upon request from SIT.

Vaccines

A growing body of evidence suggests that fully vaccinated people are less likely to be infected without showing symptoms and thus potentially less likely to spread the virus that causes COVID-19 to others. In addition, it is expected that countries will increasingly require vaccine verification as part of entry.

However, given that vaccinations are still not available everywhere in the U.S. nor overseas, SIT is recommending but not requiring vaccination for students enrolled in summer 2021 programs.

In anticipation that all adults in the U.S. will be eligible and have access to vaccines by summer, SIT will begin requiring vaccination for all U.S. students enrolled starting in Fall 2021. Recognizing that not all international students will have access to vaccines by Fall 2021, SIT asks that international students who wish to travel in and who do not have access to a vaccine apply for an accommodation (please see below).

We are adopting this policy to safeguard the health of our students, our faculty and staff and their families, partners, homestay families, and the community at large from COVID-19. We also anticipate that this approach will allow us to deliver the full SIT academic and cultural immersive experience, including homestay, as soon as possible within the specific country context.    

Exemption from Vaccination

Students in need of an exemption from this policy due to a medical reason, or because of a sincerely held religious belief, must submit a completed Immunization Exemption Form to the Student Health, Safety and Well-being department to begin the interactive accommodation process as soon as possible after vaccination deadlines have been announced. Accommodations will be granted where they do not cause undue hardship or pose a direct threat to the health and safety of others.  Students based in countries outside of the United States where vaccines are not yet available may also request an exemption by submitting an Immunization Exemption Form.  Any exemptions are contingent on vaccinations not being mandated by host country governments as a requirement for entry.

Vaccination Verification

Students will verify their vaccination status as part of the completion of their pre-departure health form.