Global Trips plan to return in the upcoming year

Students in exchange programs welcome their host siblings at the airport in 2019.

Contributed by Liv Ernst

Students in exchange programs welcome their host siblings at the airport in 2019.

As the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly unfolded in January and February of 2020, a group of high schoolers became particularly anxious. That year’s China Exchange students (CHEX) were mere weeks from an experience like no other while nation after nation fell into the pandemic’s grips.

Founded in 1999, the CHEX program pairs Xi’An-based students with a Brookline host family in the fall as students from the high school prepare for their semester-long stay with a Xi’An family in the spring. In 2020, the emerging COVID-19 pandemic stopped the trip in its tracks.

Senior Liv Ernst, a member of the contingent, said the group had been preparing for months, spending a significant amount of time together and surrounding themselves with the Xi’An culture and language as best they could.

As the Feb. 6 departure date approached, program director and chemistry teacher Steve Lantos said there was a strong sense of uncertainty that hung over students and coordinators. Even with the evolving situation, the CHEX’s program’s 20th anniversary gala went on as planned, with school officials from the Xi’An sister school flying in to celebrate.

Lantos said, behind the scenes, Brookline Town Hall and program directors tracked the development of the pandemic overseas, looking out for news that might force their hand while CHEX students waited apprehensively.

“We didn’t really know anything to be honest,” Ernst said. “There was one day in mid-February where we signed out of classes and tried to problem solve, coming up with best case scenarios.”

Lantos said that as the scope of the pandemic became obvious, the team was forced into an incredibly difficult position with so much preparation already completed over the previous months.

“We had to make a quick decision: do we send them knowing they might have to come back? Do we just cancel the trip altogether? It was one of the most painful decisions I’ve had to make as an educator,” Lantos said.

The CHEX coordinators canceled that year’s trip shortly before the State Department’s complete travel ban in late January.

The cancellation was also difficult for students, Ernst said, especially considering the tight connections the group had formed in preparation for the experience.

“With the cancellation coming only a couple of days before we were supposed to leave, it was especially difficult,” Ernst said. “It felt like we were grieving the loss of the opportunity more than anything.”

The devastating experience wasn’t unique to those preparing for CHEX, as trips to Japan and Camerata’s April trip to Prague were both canceled with little time to spare, said World Language Curriculum Coordinator Rachel Eio.

Both Japan and Prague were planned continuations of a long history of international travel at the high school, Eio said.

“It’s a really critical part of not only the World Language program, but also the Social Studies Department and Performing Arts department. As long as I’ve been here, there have always been trips associated with different languages and programs” Eio said.

There’s a huge amount of effort that goes into the coordination of a trip: work that is unpaid and constantly crunched for time, Eio said. Still, she says that those involved with the program are working diligently to bring it back.

Eio said there was a moment in January where she felt the momentum for next year was almost lost as the Omicron variant surged across the globe, though she was able to table any final decision from the coordinating committee. Eio said she expects a more concrete plan to be created soon.

“[Members of town hall and Head of School Anthony Meyer] are going to be meeting in early April to review things like what happens if a student gets COVID while they’re abroad and has to stay longer. Do we have enough chaperones to manage a potential health situation?” Eio said, adding that whatever the outcome may be, she hopes that programs resume the following year if not the next.

The CHEX program may have fewer hoops to clear in the coming years due to its unique financial status, Lantos said.

“I think it’s easier to bring back because it’s funded by the students and their families,” Lantos said.

Still, there is plenty of paperwork and legal affairs that have to get done even after approval from the school board, as living abroad in a Chinese family’s house is no small commitment, Lantos said.

Ernst said that the CHEX program was a significant factor choosing the high school over private options.

“If you decide to go, it will change the way you look at things and even in the preparation, you learn so much. It’s one of the most impactful programs at the high school for your education and for your independence as a student,” Ernst said.

The effect CHEX has on student’s lives is profound, Lantos said, which is part of the reason he’s committed to bringing it back as soon as possible.

“In my little Rolodex of contacts, I have a number of kids who attended university here and are now living in Shanghai and Beijing,” Lantos said. “More than anything, the purpose of the exchange is to promote people to people learning and understanding.”