‘You feel so hopeless:’ The impossible choice one Pa. family made to send to send an Italian exchange student home to an epicenter of COVID-19

One Italian foreign exchange student's in Boiling Springs was forced to return home to Naples during the COVID-19 pandemic.(C) Photocreo Bednarek - Stock.Adobe.com

Chad Clancy’s family has six kids, but last September, they added a seventh.

Clancy, an engineer living in Boiling Springs, Pa., near Carlisle, said he and his wife learned of an opportunity to host an international student from Italy.

The female student, whom Clancy declined to name, arrived in late September, just in time for her high school’s homecoming. Since then, she’s learned softball and made the school’s JV team.

To show off central Pennsylvania, also Clancy planned weekend outdoors trips for when the weather improved — including giving her camping gear for a Christmas present.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic broke this winter, all those plans were cut short. 

Clancy and the student’s birth family back in Italy were instead put in an impossible situation: Either keep the teen in the seeming sanctuary of Clancy’s home as the virus spreads, or send her back to her real parents in the pandemic-ravaged nation.

“We’ve come to love her like our own daughter,” Clancy told the Capital-Star, and he “wouldn’t want [his] own child traveling to Italy.”

An issue around the nation

Clancy’s situation is not unique. and similar cases have popped up around the country, and he and other host families are questioning how their exchange partner, New York-based AFS Intercultural Programs, handled the crisis.

“This was a very difficult decision that AFS International made to end programs early and return students to their families, but it was a decision that we believe to be in the best interest of our teens who were living with host families and studying in high schools throughout the world,” Marlene Baker, a spokesperson for the group, said in an email.

Established 70 years ago, AFS partners with international groups to bring students from 90 countries to the US for as little as a few weeks for up to a year of learning.

As the coronavirus spread, Clancy said AFS officials told him the student must return home to her parents’ home in Naples. That was despite Clancy and the student’s birth parents both fearing for her health while in transit.

To Clancy, sending the child home, potentially risking exposure to COVID-19 and over the objections of both her guardians, didn’t make sense.

“Their excuses keep changing. None of their explanations were ever coupled with any hard evidence for anything supporting it,” Clancy said.

Two families, a shared concern

Clancy quickly discovered his concerns were universal when he took them to a host parent social media page. There, he met Kirstin Klassert, a Washington state resident hosting a long-time family friend’s daughter from Sweden.

Since arriving in September, the student, Hilda, settled into life in Klassert’s hometown, an hour’s travel from Seattle. Hilda was on her school’s soccer team that made it to the state quarter finals.

But on March 17, Klassert received her first notice that the pandemic would interrupt Hilda’s stay. In an email, AFS said it was arranging plans to go home. But the group’s partner in Sweden, and Hilda’s parents, both didn’t want to see her travel.

Then, a direct flight from Seattle to Sweden was canceled, and AFS backed off. Both Klassert and Hilda’s parents were relieved.

“It’s much safer to stay where you are,” Klassert said.

But a few days later, Klassert received a new email from an AFS official.

In that March 28 email, , the official said that Hilda and other exchange students “can go home with the support and transportation provided by AFS or they can sign off on having her Program Terminated and stay here [in the United States] without AFS support nor AFS insurance.”

To avoid losing her visa and insurance, Hilda had to connect to a AFS-chartered flight out of Chicago to Europe on Monday, March 30.

“This is the same option given to all natural families and students,” the official added. “I understand that you and her natural family may not agree. However, the choice is theirs.”

After Klassert consulted with Hilda’s parents, the adults agreed she should return to Sweden. But it didn’t feel like much of a choice.

“[Hilda’s parents] were backed into a corner. At [that] point it’s about weighing risk,” Klassert said. “The risk of her being sick here without a visa or insurance is a worse risk then about getting home, that’s basically what it came down to.”

Baker, the AFS spokesperson, said that sending students home was unprecedented, but that the organization is “committed to returning students to their families in a manner that is thoughtful, deliberate, and cautious.”

“It was not a decision the organization took lightly, but it was a decision we believe to be in the best interests of students, especially in the face of ongoing uncertainty not only here in the US, but around the world,” she added.

The Clancys likewise ended up seeing their host daughter off early, after the girl’s parents agreed that having her in the U.S. with no support was not any better.

Both teens are now home safe, according to Clancy and Klassert. Clancy said his former host daughter spent the first two weeks after she returned home in self-quarantine, with no physical contact with her family.

“I’m sure she is ready to be done with it,” Clancy said in an email on April 9.

But the experience was still tough on both of the hosts.

“You feel so helpless,” Klassert said. “Even though she’s not my blood child … we were asked to protect her and keep her safe for a year and I feel like that power was taken from us.”