While American students studying abroad spent the last few weeks scrambling to return home amid growing concerns over the coronavirus, Alessandro Mameli has been focused on staying put.
Mameli, a 17-year-old from Sardinia, Italy, has spent the last eight months living in Frederick County with a host family and attending Oakdale High School. He came here on a program through EF Exchange — a company that places international high school students with U.S. families for cultural exchange opportunities.
Mameli has spent the last few months improving his English language skills, learning about American culture and getting involved with activities at Oakdale High such as joining the tennis team.
When the coronavirus began to spread around the globe in early March, EF advised its host families and students that the company would make arrangements for students to return home if they wished.
But by that point, the virus had already put Italy into nationwide lockdown, and Mameli, his parents in Italy and his U.S. host family decided it was best for him to stay in Frederick.
But then EF changed its stance. On March 19, an email was sent to all host families alerting them that EF would begin making arrangements for all students to return home — including those from Italy.
Amanda Braun, Mameli’s “host mom,” said she couldn’t understand the decision and that the whole experience has been frustrating.
“This is a no-brainer to me. You don’t put thousands of children on planes ... to everywhere in the world right now,” she said.
In the email, EF said families could apply for an exception for the student to remain in the United States if they feel there are extenuating circumstances. On EF’s website, extenuating circumstances are defined as “those that would be of significant risk to the safety or well-being of the student should they return to their home.”
Braun said she immediately applied for an exception for Mameli to stay due to the conditions in Italy.
“We [applied] but more or less they [EF] don’t care about the exceptions. ... EF started booking all these students flights, even though we applied for an exception,” Braun said.
Mameli is booked on a flight for Thursday to Rome, even though he, his parents, and his host family all feel he should stay in the United States.
“I’m sad about this situation. I didn’t expect the company to make me return this early,” Mameli said. “My parents did not want me to come back, but now they are being forced from the company. I would rather just stay here.”
Not only are Mameli and Braun concerned that he could contract the virus by traveling, they are also concerned about how he will make it home to Sardinia, an island off the coast of Italy.
All ferries have been suspended and Alitalia, Italy’s national flight carrier, has guaranteed flights to Sardinia only through March 25, a day before Mameli arrives in Rome. According to Braun, EF is guaranteeing only that students make it to their home country, not to their actual home.
“His parents did book him a flight [to Sardinia] that evening ... but we aren’t even sure if he can get there,” Braun said. “I’ve relayed all this information to EF. ... They are pressuring everybody into being forced to get on the plane.”
EF has provided information and answers on the website to questions regarding their decision. According to the website, EF is asking students to return home because many countries have urged for their citizens to return and there is uncertainty surrounding many student’s host family situations and later travel possibilities.
“We no longer feel it is appropriate to ask our host families to continue to host during this uncertain and stressful time,” the website reads. “Additionally, restrictions to both domestic and international travel are being implemented regularly, and we do not know what additional restrictions in the future could prevent our students from traveling home.”
Braun said that she understands some families may be hit harder by the pandemic than others, but that she and her husband are in a stable situation to continue providing for Mameli.
“This isn’t a burden. This is me protecting the student that is signed up to take care of. ... I assured EF that we both have an income, it’s guaranteed, it’s not going away. ... His life here would continue, just in a different way,” Braun said.
Mameli also said that EF told her Mameli could lose his visa status and health insurance if he stays in the United States. Braun said she understands but feels the company is not focusing on the safety of students.
She is certain there is a bigger liability for EF making students travel at this time.
“You have the WHO, the CDC, you have our government and every other government saying don’t travel,” Braun said. “Thousands of kids in this program are flying and are going to be in contact with the virus that are going to bring it home and somebody is going to get sick and somebody will die. I full-heartedly believe that.”
Mameli agreed and said he is concerned about getting the virus and spreading it to his parents, who are both health care workers over 50.
As of Tuesday, Braun said EF had denied her application for Mameli to stay in the States. When asked why she was told by an EF employee that exceptions are being offered only in extreme circumstances, such as if the student’s family in their home country had COVID-19.
A spokesperson for the company told The News-Post that they are “strongly encouraging” students to go home but that no one is being forced and students have the option to stay. When asked why Mameli was denied an exception, the spokesperson said the company was unable to comment on specific cases.
A member of EF’s communications team also provided a statement, the last paragraph of which read, “While we are saddened by this abrupt goodbye, we believe we are making the best decision for our exchange students and host families and we are encouraged by the cross-cultural bonds that were built and that will last a lifetime.”
Braun said she has no choice but to put Mameli on the plane, but she is hoping U.S. airports get shut down over the next few days, which would force EF to allow Mameli to stay.
“We’re taking it day by day, because there’s nothing else we feel like we can do,” she said.