In early September Kailash Kothari arrived from India to begin a graduate program in Supply Chain Management at the University of Maryland. But before he could start his fall semester on campus, Kailash first had to navigate his way to a student visa, through the roadblocks created by the pandemic as it spread infection and closed borders.
When the Delta variant swept across the subcontinent, causing a catastrophic fourth wave that pushed the death toll in India to well over 4 million by some estimates the US shuttered its Indian embassy and consulates in Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai. As Covid-induced travel restrictions fell on students, Kailash scrambled to get an F1 student visa that would grant him entry into the US and to his master’s program.
Indian students constitute a large proportion (about 18%) of nearly 1.1 million international students currently enrolled at US universities. When the pandemic hit, it cut off the lucrative flow of cash from foreign students who were forced to return home or who deferred admissions to their chosen university. US educational institutions stand to lose billions of dollars in fees as foreign student enrollment declines. For students like Kailash, US-imposed travel restrictions from certain countries and a backlog in student visa processing made it both difficult and expensive to arrive in time for their 2021 Fall semesters.
Trying to get an F1 visa and a valid international flight was like walking a tightrope, but Kailash was fortunate to stay on track. In June, the US consulate in India announced special visa days for F1 students. Students had to submit paperwork, produce evidence of a double vaccination and participate in an in-person interview at an American consulate.
Kailash was granted an interview in two separate cities. He first presented himself for an initial review of his paperwork in Delhi and then made a crazy dash south to Mumbai for a follow up interview less than 24 hours later.
Once his visa was granted, Kailash was ready to board a flight to America. At the time however, the US had suspended flights from India, and from the EU and Britain, where Indians tend to make flight connections when traveling to the US. The US currently has travel restrictions in place for SCHENGEN countries among others, due to concerns over the highly transmissible COVID-19 Delta variant.
Flights from India were banned until August 31 in order to contain the spread of the Delta variant, even though US student visa holders are exempted from the US-India travel ban.
Eventually Kailash secured a coveted but expensive seat on a flight from Qatar as flights from some Middle Eastern countries are allowed into the US. He had to present proof of a negative Covid test taken 72 hours before he boarded a plane, and provide evidence of vaccination or proof of recovery from the virus within the last 90 days, but did not have to quarantine once he arrived on American soil.
The Spread of the Delta Variant
The Delta variant first identified in India in December 2020, is now the predominant strain of the coronavirus in the US and several other countries. According to the CDC the Delta variant now accounts for 93% of all COVID cases and is more than twice as contagious as previous variants.
At a September 2 EMS briefing on the pandemic, the CDC’s Dr. Peggy Honein warned that the country was “unfortunately in the midst of a fairly large surge caused by the highly transmissible Delta variant.” Despite the availability of proven mitigation measures and effective vaccines, she added, “the virus continues to take a major toll,” with the CDC reporting daily increases in cases, ER visits, hospital admissions, and deaths. At this time, just under 53% of overall US population is fully vaccinated.
Dr. Honein explained that in June the US had reached a low infection rate, with less than “12 thousand cases a day reported,” and the 7-day average climbing to nearly 150 thousand cases a day. The average number of new hospital admissions is at well over 12 thousand stated Dr. Honein, with 1000 deaths a day reported to CDC. In total, the US accounts for almost 640 thousand deaths and 40 million cases.
As expected, emerging trends indicate that states with higher vaccination coverage have lower hospitalizations and ER visits.
The surge in July and August tracked by hospitalizations and ER visits are starting to place a bigger Covid burden on children, said Dr. Honein, with the CDC noting an upward trend for children as the Delta variant rips through the country.
With the return to in-person education at schools and universities this fall, the CDC has announced recommendations to maximize protection from the Delta variant on campuses and prevent spreading it among students.
For students 12 and above who are eligible for vaccines, the CDC offers comprehensive guidelines for institutions of higher learning (IHEs) on how to implement measures to safeguard their staff and students. Vaccines are free and available to everyone in the US regardless of immigration or health insurance status.
However, children up to the age of 11 who are back to school remain at risk, because vaccinations are not yet available for that age group. Dr. Honein, expressed concerns about the dangers of Covid transmission among students younger than 12. She said staff at schools could create safe environments for children under 12 who have no authorized vaccine, “by fully vaccinating and using protective measures like wearing masks so schools can open and stay open safely.”
Dr. Honein said that the community also can play a role in protecting children and reducing community transmission. The CDC recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. They suggest that children “should return to full-time in-person learning in the fall with layered prevention strategies in place.”
Eleven-year-old Sachin Heatherley just began 6th grade in San Antonio, and his mother eagerly awaits the release of a Covid19 vaccine for her son. “Thank you science and God,” she said, after learning of a recent announcement by Pfizer that Covid vaccine data for 5-to -11 year-olds will be ready for submission to the FDA by end September, and clinical trial data on a vaccine for 6 month – 5 year-olds, will be released by end October.
Vaccines have opened up opportunities for international students like Kailash to pursue further education at an US university in the middle of a pandemic. But for Sachin and his peers who face the threat of Covid at school, the responsibility to provide safe, supportive learning environments for children and adolescents belongs to their communities (schools, parents, guardians, and caregivers ) until a vaccine is available to protect them in the classroom.
Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents