Students travel overseas to see family after COVID-19 previously delayed travel


Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

Megan McCann, a junior communication science and disorders major, travelled to Guam to see her family for the first time in two years.

By Rashi Ranjan, Staff Writer

Megan McCann had not seen her family for the last two years — her scheduled trip to Guam earlier in 2020 was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She said she was thrilled to have the chance to finally go back in early December.

“I’m so excited. This is what I’m grasping onto for dear life, to make it through the semester — it’s my hope of being able to go back home,” McCann, a junior communication science and disorders major, said.

With overseas trips to visit their families delayed, students were patiently waiting for a chance to fly back and enjoy their longer-than-usual winter breaks with friends and family. But Delo Blough, director of the Office of International Services, said travel restrictions and various quarantine policies could make coming back to Pittsburgh difficult as well.

“During this time especially, [we] are keeping track of travel bans that might be in place or things that people might face when they’re trying to come into the country, whether they’re immigration-related or COVID-related,” Blough said.

Guam’s quarantine policies require all individuals arriving in Guam to quarantine at a government facility, such as a hotel. McCann said even though that meant the policy would further delay her getting to see her family, she was “so ready.”

“Once you leave the airport, a government bus will take you [to a hotel],” McCann said. “It’s mandated by the government to stay in a hotel for two weeks, so I won’t be able to see my family until mid-December.”

But once McCann was in Guam, as long as her COVID-19 test halfway through her 14-day quarantine was negative, she could leave the government-provided hotel she was staying at with her twin sister and finish her quarantine at her family’s residence. McCann also commended the strictness of Guam’s policies.

“The National Guard was everywhere, making sure everyone was in order,” McCann said. “We had to quarantine for another seven days at home, and the government would check up on us every day to make sure we were in our homes. If we didn’t answer [their random phone calls], we would get a citation.”

Ghalia Malki underwent a similar quarantine process when she flew back home to Saudi Arabia for winter break. A Saudi citizen, Malki was required to take a COVID-19 test within 48 hours of arrival. If negative, she could go home — if positive, she would be required to quarantine a full 14 days. Malki said the travel process “felt cleaner than it ever did before [the pandemic].”

“Officials were prepared and ready for any case. There were testing centers everywhere and information about everything [was] readily available,” Malki, a junior biological sciences major, said.

Malki said Saudi Arabia’s measures have, in part, allowed her to fully enjoy her break, and that it’s better than anything she saw back in Pittsburgh.

“My break has been amazing. I’ve been able to visit family that I haven’t seen in a year. There’s still the fear of the virus, but at least I know I will be taken care of should anything happen,” Malki said. “There’s the rigorous contact tracing and preparedness that brings back a sense of normalcy.”

Blough said her office is always encouraging students to think carefully about travel for many reasons, including safety and the COVID-related proclamations issued by the federal government. These proclamations prohibit individuals from coming back to the U.S. within 14 days of visiting a country on the CDC’s “prohibited” list. As of publication time, these countries include China, Iran, the European Schengen area, United Kingdom, Ireland and Brazil.

“There’s the risk the president might enact another proclamation,” Blough said. “The other thing the students are facing is embassies remain closed, so if you need a new visa, you better check ahead of time to make sure your embassy is available for business.”

As in previous years, the Office of International Services requires prior knowledge of scheduled international travel and provides travel signatures for students who may need it to come back to the United States, such as students on student visas.

Malki is planning on coming back to Pittsburgh before the start of the spring semester — she said the process is seamless through one of the many apps the Saudi government is using to monitor the virus and inform the population of testing centers, contact tracing and general information.

“The process before leaving is getting paperwork signed through one of the apps,” Malki said. “It’s in order to prove my leaving isn’t just for vacation but for necessity.”

Once Malki returns, she is planning to self-quarantine. Similarly, McCann will also return to Pittsburgh. She says it’ll be easier than travelling to Guam “for sure.”

“It’ll definitely be easier because Pittsburgh is not doing a government-mandated quarantine,” McCann said. “I’ll also quarantine inside of my apartment for two weeks.”

While both McCann and Malki are planning on coming back to Pitt, any student who chooses to take classes remotely can do so through Flex@Pitt. Blough said students were participating in classes from “all over the world” in the fall semester.

“We had several hundred students, at least, studying from their home countries their last semester, so I anticipate that will continue into next semester,” Blough said. “As long as you can access your internet and get into those classes, you can take them from wherever you are.”

Though she’s sad about leaving Guam, McCann is looking forward to the new semester.

“I don’t want to go back. Being warm — I missed that,” McCann said. “But 2020 is over, and it’ll be a new start to the new year and the new semester, so I’m feeling positive.”