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    February 2020

    Assessing Safety of Travel Abroad

    Member schools, colleges, and universities frequently ask United Educators (UE) if they should allow students or staff to take school-sponsored trips to a particular country despite security or health concerns. UE does not take a specific position on the advisability of any given trip but supports the approach that many institutions take — prohibiting travel to a country or area when the U.S. government cautions against it. In addition to considering government travel advisories and health warnings, UE strongly recommends that institutions follow additional practices to keep community members safe.

    Travel Advisories

    In January 2018, the State Department rolled out a new system of travel advisories to give U.S. travelers information about the relative safety of different countries. It replaces all prior State Department travel warnings and travel alerts. Under this system, all countries are ranked in one of four levels according to a variety of factors, such as terrorism, crime, and natural disasters:     

    • Level 1 — Exercise normal precautions 
    • Level 2 — Exercise increased caution 
    • Level 3 — Reconsider travel 
    • Level 4 — Do not travel  

    The State Department generally does not prohibit people from traveling to Level 4 countries. (The only current exception is North Korea. Effective September 2017, the State Department restricted U.S. citizens from traveling to that country in most circumstances, noting they must apply for a special validation passport to visit North Korea for certain limited purposes.) However, it explains that Level 4 “is the highest advisory level due to greater likelihood of life-threatening risks. During an emergency, the U.S. government may have very limited ability to provide assistance. The Department of State advises that U.S. citizens not travel to the country or to leave as soon as it is safe to do so.” 

    In addition to the overall travel advisory level for each country, the State Department may issue security alerts with a different advisory level for a specific area or region within a country. For example, as of February 2020, Mexico as a whole was ranked Level 2, but because of violent crime several states, including Colima and Guerrero, were designated as Level 4 and several others including Jalisco and Morelos were designated as Level 3.  

    The State Department reviews Level 1 and Level 2 advisories annually and Level 3 and 4 advisories every six months.

    Travel Health Notices

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issues three levels of travel health notices. The most serious is the Warning Level 3 to avoid nonessential travel because of widespread serious outbreaks of a disease (such as the Zika virus in 2016) or other public health concerns that are a high risk. In January 2020, the CDC issued a Level 3 notice for China due to the coronavirus outbreak. Other levels are: 

    • Watch Level 1: Practice Usual Precautions (“Usual baseline risk or slightly above baseline risk for destination and limited impact to the traveler”)
    • Alert Level 2: Practice Enhanced Precautions (“Increased risk in defined settings or associated with specific risk factors; certain high-risk populations may wish to delay travel to these destinations”) 

    UE’s Recommended Practices 

    Institutions also should consider these practices related to study abroad programs: 

    Establish a Travel Policy 

    The policy should cover school-sponsored travel by students, employees, or members of the general public. It should clearly state whether travel is allowed to countries or regions identified in a State Department travel advisory or a CDC health warning

    Verify Insurance Coverage 

    Liability, accident, health, and other insurance policies vary greatly, including whether they cover employees, students, or other travelers. Also, some carriers do not cover claims or lawsuits brought in foreign countries, and some do not cover hostilities or acts of terrorism that occur outside the United States. Check with your institution’s broker or underwriter to verify coverage. 

    Use Assumption of Risk and Release Forms 

    Consider options that enable students to avoid travel to an area that is under a travel advisory or warning. To reinforce the trip’s voluntary nature, require each participant (or a parent or guardian in the case of minors) to sign an assumption of risk and release form or a similar waiver. The document should confirm that the participant has read and understands the travel advisory or warning and other identified travel risks. The institution’s legal counsel should draft or review all such forms. 

    Create Evacuation Procedures 

    Evacuations may become necessary in the event of a medical problem, civil unrest, or other emergency. Ensure that options are in place to remove one or more travelers or the entire traveling party. Consider the difficulty of evacuations from remote locations. The local U.S. Embassy or Consulate can provide information and, possibly, resources for safe and swift evacuations. Also, some companies, such as International SOS, will provide evacuation services. Institutions should contact these companies during the trip planning process. 

    Use State Department and U.S. Embassy or Consulate Resources 

    Each travel abroad trip should be registered with the State Department through its Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which enables the local embassy or consulate to notify the group in case of an emergency. In addition, trip leaders should have the contact information and location of the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate while traveling. 

    Keep Copies of Passports 

    Collect two copies of each participant’s passport. Trip leaders should keep one in a secure location, such as a safe, while abroad. These will be helpful in proving a participant’s citizenship and identity if a passport is lost or stolen. A readily accessible duplicate should be kept at the institution. All passport copies should be properly disposed of after the trip ends. 

    More From UE

    Course: Short-Term International Programs

    Understanding and Managing the Risks of Short-Term International Programs

    Roundtable: Short-Term International Programs

    Checklist: Drafting Effective Releases

    Additional Resources

    State Department Travel to High Risk Areas

    State Department: Students Abroad page

    By Hillary L. Pettegrew, senior risk management counsel 


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