The Covid-19 DROPING SCHOOL is like a perpetual snow day for parents, without the fun toboggan breaks. The mental state of teenagers who tele-learn during the day and TikToken at night can be described as an intoxication of excitement. It is not surprising, then, that some parents make the unusual, even extreme, decision to grant themselves and their offspring leave: They send their children to an eco-reserve in Costa Rica.

Distance learning in the rainforest? It was a breeze for me, says health educator Julie Dubrouillet about a one-month program in Costa Rica offered by CIEE, a nonprofit study abroad and intercultural exchange group based in Portland, Maine. Students complete their school work in a peer group after going through strict hygiene protocols (Covid-19 negative test 72 hours before arrival, 5 days with a mask and social distancing on departure). Instead of staying with a local family for part of the program, as was possible before the pandemic, all students sleep in dormitories at the ICEE campus in Monteverde.

Learning away from the rainforest? It was a piece of cake.

When Mrs. Dubruye, who lives with her family in Palo Alto, California, offered the program to her 17-year-old son, Clement Colwell, he was immediately sold. It’s weird to be a senior now, he said. The disappointed hopes of a young American boy in his crucial senior year of high school, his mother understands: They’re at the top of the school, there’s a graduation and a prom, lots of fun stuff. Clem was at Glee Club, playing lacrosse, and suddenly he was gone.

Library at the ICES campus in Monteverde, Costa Rica. Insert: Capuchin monkeys in the cloud forest of Monteverde.

Clearly, a unique experience can soften these jerks. Dubruye added that she saves on everything from prom tickets to renting a tuxedo and donations to sporting events, streamlining her spending by $4,900 (not including airfare). That’s what you pay for a good night camping in Tahoe or Yosemite, she says. Moreover, the children can practice their Spanish.

Colwell, who arrived at the 150-acre campus last November after a month in Costa Rica, said his workday has remained the same, coming to his class in Palo Alto from noon to 5 p.m. What’s different is the freedom to relax after work hours with new friends. Maya Rose Hess, a biologist in her bubble, agrees: There were always activities – football, guitar, hummingbird feeder storage, says the 18-year-old from Oak Park, Illinois. We all watched the sunset together. The weekend was all about zipping and trapping in the lush Monteverde cloud forest next door. On hikes, such as to El Tigre Falls, we saw wild monkeys, sloths, hummingbirds – certainly lots of insects, Mr. Colwell said. (The first night he sent his mother a picture of a scorpion).

In 2020, Covid-19 hit study abroad programs hard: Organizations evacuated students, laid off staff, and canceled summer programs in the spring. Usually we record 40,000 dropouts, but last year it was a few hundred students, mostly in Israel and Ireland, said Ethan Knight, founder of the Gap Year Association of Portland, a nonprofit based in Ore-Portland. This year the parents want to plan trips to places closer to home. Along with Hawaii, Costa Rica is becoming a major travel destination, Knight said. If there’s an evacuation, it’s not so scary to bring the kids home.

Amigos International has adapted its programs for adolescents this year. Home stay is suspended, but the lessons in leadership and community building remain the same.


Amigos de las Americas

When Costa Rica opened its borders last fall, groups like Carpe Diem, Education First and Outward Bound Costa Rica launched new offerings. It began as a two-tiered program for U.S. students between the ages of 16 and 18, said E. Rao, director of communications. Each group of students is active outdoors, receiving certificates and learning Spanish. We are fortunate to have outdoor classes on 12 acres in the rainforest.

There were hiccups: A student who participated in the program last November tested positive when she returned home via the Atlanta airport, said Rao, who conducted contact tracing training to encourage other members of the group to immediately quarantine and get tested. The challenges were procedural in nature, said Matthew Redman, vice president of ICES, referring to two students who were turned back at the Costa Rican border because of a false Covid test (negative test results are no longer required to enter Costa Rica, but are now required before flying to the United States). Still, participants could get an idea of social behavior during a pandemic, Redman said: A student said: It made me aware of how I need to act to take care of this group. It was a magical, unsolicited comment.

Amigos, a Houston-based international organization that teaches leadership and community skills, has developed a new hybrid model. Students live with a group of peers in a dormitory in a nature reserve in the mountains of Perez Zeledona, rather than in host families as is the case in Costa Rica and elsewhere. According to Christa Boscoe, Amigos Bay Area Director, the classes will remain the same: How you can be an agent of positive change in your community.

But for a woman who participated in the Amigos program in 1989, as a teenager in Paraguay, being in her own country is crucial. To me, it’s something organic that happens when there’s a language barrier and a cultural exchange that takes a little courage on both sides, says Mandy Levenberg, a marketing consultant in Seattle. Her 16-year-old daughter, Zoe McDaniel, was participating in the Amigos’ 2019 trip, but she and her mother decided not to go this summer.

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