COVID-19: Past, Present & Future

Like the rest of the international education community, our programs were affected by the global events that unfolded in March 2020.

It was a long few months, with information evolving every day about the global spread of the Novel Coronavirus. We watched as governments intensified their mitigation mandates by restricting international travel, closing schools, and limiting in-person social interactions.

We were in constant communication with our enrolled 2020 families throughout the spring, listening to their concerns while giving updates on our plans. We stayed patient for as long as we could but ultimately made the difficult but necessary decision to postpone what would have been our 35th ActionQuest summer in the British Virgin Islands. We couldn’t have been more in awe of the support and understanding our families displayed during this challenging period. Over sixty percent of our families selected to roll their program to 2021, reinforcing their commitment to giving their child the life-changing experience ActionQuest historically delivers.

While this is the story of ActionQuest’s 2020 summer, we also run a program called Sea|mester, a year-round academic semester at sea voyage for college and gap-year students. We’ve been running Sea|mester voyages successfully throughout the pandemic, and this experience has allowed us to develop time-tested strategies that we will build on for all programs in 2021.

In January of 2020, the students and staff aboard our 112ft schooner, S/Y Argo, left Cape Town, arriving in Barbados in late April to a very different set of news headlines. Sailing full time in the Caribbean, the crew aboard our 90ft schooner S/Y Ocean Star had better access to international news, so they saw the global situation unfold in real-time. It feels like a lifetime ago now, but those two voyages marked the start of our new normal.

How did we respond? Well, living and learning aboard self-sufficient sailing vessels, our teams have the unique ability to isolate for long periods. So, while we increased health protocols and limited excursions, we were not overly concerned from a health perspective. “Remote Learning” and “Distance Education” have always been central to the Sea|mester experience.

That said, in anticipation that border closures might restrict our ability to navigate freely, we chose to relocate our vessels to Antigua, the closest island providing good medical support and, if necessary, direct flights to the USA.

Our programs continued until the U.S. Department of State issued the global “Do Not Travel” directive, requesting that all U.S. citizens return home immediately or run the risk of becoming stuck overseas indefinitely. With the decision out of our hands, we made the painful announcement to our students that we would be continuing their semester remotely.

Since March, we’ve spent countless hours educating ourselves by researching Coronavirus and the viral infection it causes. We’ve evaluated the mitigation policies and procedures developed by governments and other organizations, tracking the adjustments they make as more scientific data becomes available. We’ve watched the strategies employed by the international community, particularly as they relate to testing, quarantine, and tracing as travel restrictions begin to ease.

We finalized our Covid-19 risk mitigation protocols in late spring and, while many international destinations remained closed (causing us to postpone all 2020 GoBeyond trips) on June 26, 2020, started to run programs aboard our schooners once again. Both S/Y Argo and S/Y Ocean Star sailed during the summer months, then set sail once again with our newest vessel, S/Y Vela, in September 2020, voyaging internationally with a full complement of 64 students. We’re happy to report that no student or staff has tested positive to date yet acknowledge that no Covid-19 protocol or strategy is infallible.

“We've always considered the GoBeyond experience to be more about the journey rather than the destination, so we believe that our ability to provide life-changing experiences during this challenging time is a result of the inherent flexibility and self-sufficiency that living, traveling, and learning aboard in small cohort groups, often on-board sailing vessels, provide. ”
-Mike Meighan - Executive Director

Here’s an overview of the risk mitigation protocols and procedures we’re using for current Sea|mester voyages. We feel it’s relevant to present them here as we’ll use these to develop the GoBeyond protocols closer to the summer.

We make our decisions around these over-arching strategies:

  • Reduce the possibility of an infected person joining the program
  • “QuaranTeam” within reach of definitive medical care before heading further afield (when applicable)
  • Limit opportunities for a student to become infected while on program

While these primary strategies will remain the same, the methods we employ to achieve them will likely change over time, perhaps considerably, based on the availability of vaccination, scientific data, and directives/requirements from airlines or governmental agencies.

Answering the difficult questions of “What if”

Naturally, students and parents want to know how we would respond to a suspected or diagnosed case of Covid-19 on our program. Given that most of our programs are mobile, with many run aboard sailing vessels, this isn’t an easy question to answer without examining the full range of possible variables. Specifically:

  • Is the individual showing symptoms commonly associated with Covid-19, or is there a positive diagnosis?
  • When is the suspected or diagnosed case occurring? Pre-trip, during the onboarding, during, or after the QuaranTeam period?
  • How ill is the individual? As we know, many people have limited symptoms or none at all. Others are affected more significantly, with some requiring medical care and hospitalization.
  • What’s our geographical location, and, as a result, what medical or emergency response resources are available to us? Some locations have better medical facilities than others. An additional consideration is the required health protocols of the country in which we are located.

Irrespective of the above factors, our response strategy would include:

  • Isolation and quarantine to the extent possible. This is easier when living in hotels and hostels but more difficult aboard the vessel, so we would likely relocate the individual to shoreside accommodation if possible. Depending on the severity of the symptoms and/or program schedule, it’s possible that we would require a parent/guardian to travel to the program location to assist with their student during their recovery.
  • Close discussion with International SOS and MedAire (our risk management partners) in addition to local health departments of the country in which we are located to ensure that we are following established protocols
  • Testing to establish a firm diagnosis. For health and safety reasons, a positive diagnosis of any individual would require quarantine and isolation from the cohort until the individual is infection-free. A known, positive diagnosis would result in widespread testing and an additional QuaranTeam period for the rest of the group.
  • Careful monitoring of the health of the rest of the cohort. The team may be required to move to separate accommodations to conduct deep cleaning.

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