GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) — Because of COVID-19, many schools and universities across the U.S. had to turn away international students from attending classes in person last year. Countries under travel restrictions because of the pandemic have seen their embassies reduce hours or close completely, preventing international students from obtaining vital legal documents like visas and passports.
David Ford is involved with the international student program at Coosa Christian School, which managed to avoid those problems. Still, he said many other schools refused to take those students last year because of the pandemic.
“As a whole, many of the student exchange organizations could only place about half of the students they had because many schools were going virtual,” he said. “It’s because if a school is virtual, international students were not allowed to come, which limited how many schools could take them.”
He said international students typically are taking in person classes to see “how America works,” and the virtual format many schools went with during the pandemic was not that.
“They are here to learn about the culture and different things about America,” Ford added.
Ford also believes many international students were not allowed to leave their countries because of travel bans; others may have been afraid to travel.
“At the ... beginning of the school year, we were at our worst with cases,” he said. “I think the fear of coming to America with everything going on was what slowed it down.”
However, Ford said Coosa Christian has not had any problems bringing international students through its doors because of COVID-19.
“We were expecting two or three students this year because of the pandemic, but we had 10 international students this year,” said Ford, “They all were great and did really well this year.”
Of those students, five graduated this year with their high school diplomas. “The pandemic didn’t really slow us down. We had a great year,” Ford said.
Coosa Christian School is the only school in the county certified to take F-1 international students, according to Ford, which allows them to stay in the country for longer than a year to study, rather than a those on a J-1 visa, which expires after a year.
“We are proud to have international students come here because we believe that they add value to our student body,” said Ford.
Coosa Christian works with partnering agencies within both the U.S. and the students’ home countries to bring them here to study abroad.
“We have three agencies that will send us a kid that wants to come to school here in Alabama, and we will start searching for host families,” Ford said.
He said international student programs are heading to a normal format once again, adding, “Overall, students that had put it off are now ready, and more students are interested in coming to America.”
In fact, the biggest problem facing Coosa Christian’s program is internal, within the U.S.
Ford said it’s a challenge each year to find host families for the international students. These families are responsible for the students, to ensure they have a safe place to live during their stay in the U.S.
“We could get plenty of students, it’s just finding enough host families to take them,” Ford said. “It’s the same for both private and public schools.”
There are many strict criteria that need to be met to be a host family, such as background checks and adequate housing — which can include a proper bed and a window in the student’s room from which to escape should there be an emergency.
“We also have to interview every single family member to make sure that they are all in agreement that they want to host an international student and that they are going to provide a safe environment,” Ford said.
He said the strict requirements are in place so they can assure the families of the students coming to the U.S. that they are in a safe, reliable environment.
“I encourage anyone who is able to do it. I’ve personally had 11 students live with me during their stay, and I still have correspondence with 10 of them.” Ford said, “It’s a really great opportunity and you gain experiences and friendships that you’ll have for life.”