Omicron surge leads to adjusted Lawrence travel policy

The new omicron variant of COVID-19 has thrown the world into another wave of spiking cases and closed borders. For some Lawrence students, concern over border closures and their study abroad plans for Winter Term are front and center, but many programs are still running for Winter Term 2022.  

Currently, many off-campus programs are running as planned despite the recent change in Lawrence’s travel policy made by the Lawrence Pandemic Planning Team (LPPT), which has suspended all official university travel since Dec. 23. Official university travel includes anything related to Lawrence-sponsored, affiliated or endorsed activity, such as short-term experiential learning trips for Lawrence classes, according to Special Assistant to the President Mike O’Connor.  

Official university travel does not include students who are traveling long-term for an entire semester or trimester with third-party programs: therefore, students may go ahead with their study abroad plans despite Lawrence’s change to its travel policy.  

There are many factors for the LPPT to consider when deciding on travel policy, according to O’Connor. The current suspension of travel is meant to mitigate the risk of Lawrence’s community being exposed to COVID-19. While Lawrence is a highly vaccinated community with many strategies to reduce risk, O’Connor said, opening the community to other communities through travel or other means increases the risk of contracting COVID-19.  

O’Connor said it’s imperative that Lawrence try to minimize the risk of transmission as much as possible, especially with the new omicron variant, which is highly contagious and currently spreading rapidly throughout the United States.  

Claudena Skran, Edwin & Ruth West Professor of Economics and Social Science and Professor of Government, is currently teaching a government course that includes a short-term experiential learning trip to a developing country over spring break. The course, titled Field Experience in Development, allows students the opportunity to do field research in a developing country. 

The course’s trip was cancelled in 2020 and 2021 and is currently on pause due to Lawrence’s travel policy. Other trips planned for D-Term 2021 for similar traveling classroom courses were cancelled. If the travel policy changes to allow Skran’s trip to run, the class will travel to Sierra Leone.  

Skran is hopeful the trip will be taken off pause and continue as planned. Sierra Leone’s current COVID-19 rates are rated by the CDC at a level one, indicating a low level of COVID-19 cases in the country. The CDC still advises travelers to be fully vaccinated before going. Skran cited this ranking as a reason she believes the trip should run: “I firmly believe that we can follow health protocols and have a safe trip to Sierra Leone.” 

According to Lezlie Weber, Director of Off-Campus Programs, COVID-19 testing is a concern that affected Lawrence’s decision to suspend university travel. Most countries now require negative test results before entering the country. Specifically for shorter trips, around a week or two weeks long, if someone tests positive before departure, they likely will not be able to join the program at all.  

A positive test is less of a concern for longer trips since the programs run for more than two weeks. Therefore, students would be able to join the program later if they test positive on departure and must isolate at home.  

Most of the term-long study abroad programs Lawrence offers are facilitated through third-party providers, which act as go-betweens for Lawrence and the study abroad location, according to Weber. Each program has a local team that evaluates whether a program should continue to run based on various community factors, much like The Lawrence Pandemic Planning Team decides Lawrence’s COVID-19 status. 

Europe is the primary region of the world that is open right now to international students and where most Lawrence students are currently studying abroad. Most other international study abroad locations have been shut down, either by the program’s decision or by the country closing its borders to non-citizens. Some programs may have also closed due to low enrollment, according to Weber, who said there is no one reason programs were cancelled.  

The London Centre does not use a third party as it is a Lawrence-run program. It is regarded as an extension of Lawrence’s campus since it has similar testing, quarantine and isolation protocols to the Appleton campus. Therefore, it has remained open as Lawrence’s campus has for Winter Term 2022.  

The United Kingdom does have requirements on arrival to the country that Lawrence students are following, such as testing and quarantine and isolation protocols.