COVID-19: Past, Present & Future

Like the rest of the international education community, our voyages have been affected by the global events that unfolded in March 2020.

In January of 2020, the students and staff aboard S/Y Argo left Cape Town, arriving in Barbados in late April to a very different set of news headlines. Sailing full time in the Caribbean, S/Y Ocean Star’s crew had better access to international news, so they saw the global situation unfold in real-time. It feels like a lifetime ago now, but those two voyages marked the start of our new normal.

 

How did we respond? Well, living and learning aboard self-sufficient sailing vessels, our teams have the unique ability to isolate for long periods. So, while we increased health protocols and limited excursions, we were not overly concerned from a health perspective. “Remote Learning” and “Distance Education” have always been central to the Sea|mester experience.

That said, in anticipation that border closures might restrict our ability to navigate freely, we chose to relocate our vessels to Antigua, the closest island providing good medical support and, if necessary, direct flights to the USA.

Our programs continued until the U.S. Department of State issued the global “Do Not Travel” directive, requesting that all U.S. citizens return home immediately or run the risk of becoming stuck overseas indefinitely. With the decision out of our hands, we made the painful announcement to our students that we would be continuing their semester remotely.

Since March, we’ve spent countless hours educating ourselves by researching Coronavirus and the viral infection it causes. We’ve evaluated the mitigation policies and procedures developed by governments and other organizations, tracking the adjustments they make as more scientific data becomes available. We’ve watched the strategies employed by the international community, particularly as they relate to testing, quarantine, and tracing as travel restrictions begin to ease.

We finalized our Covid-19 risk mitigation protocols in late spring and, on June 26, 2020, started to run programs once again. Both S/Y Argo and S/Y Ocean Star sailed during the summer months, then set sail once again with our newest vessel, S/Y Vela, in September 2020, voyaging internationally with a full complement of 64 students. We’re happy to report that no student or staff has tested positive to date yet acknowledge that no Covid-19 protocol or strategy is infallible.

“We've always considered the Sea|mester experience to be more about the journey rather than the destination, so we believe that our ability to provide life-changing experiences during this challenging time is a result of the inherent flexibility and self-sufficiency that living, traveling, and learning aboard a sailing vessel provides. ”
-Mike Meighan - Executive Director

What follows is an overview of our current risk mitigation protocols and procedures, developed around these over-arching strategies:

 

  • Reduce the possibility of an infected person joining the vessel
  • “QuaranTeam” within reach of definitive medical care before heading further afield
  • Limit opportunities for a crew member to become infected while underway

While these primary strategies will remain the same, the methods we employ to achieve them will likely change over time, perhaps considerably, based on the availability of vaccination, scientific data, and directives/requirements from airlines or governmental agencies.

Answering the difficult questions of “What if”

Naturally, students and parents want to know how we would respond to a suspected or diagnosed case of Covid-19 on our program. Given our unique living environment and voyage itinerary, this isn’t an easy question to answer without examining the full range of possible variables. Specifically:

  • Is the individual showing symptoms commonly associated with Covid-19, or is there a positive diagnosis?
  • When is the suspected or diagnosed case occurring? Pre-trip, during the onboarding, during, or after the Quaranteam period?
  • How ill is the individual? As we know, many people have limited symptoms or none at all. Others are affected more significantly, with some requiring medical care and hospitalization.
  • What’s our geographical location, and, as a result, what medical or emergency response resources are available to us? Ordinarily, being nearshore will provide more support than when we are offshore, yet some locations have better medical facilities than others. An additional consideration is the required health protocols of the country in which we are located.

Irrespective of the above factors, our response strategy would include:

  • Isolation and quarantine to the extent possible. This is difficult aboard the vessel, so we would likely relocate the individual to shoreside accommodation if possible. Depending on the severity of the symptoms and/or vessel schedule, it’s possible that we would require a parent/guardian to travel to the shoreside location to assist with their student during their recovery.
  • Close discussion with MedAire (our risk management partner) in addition to local health departments of the country in which we are located to ensure that we are following established protocols
  • Testing to establish a firm diagnosis. For health and safety reasons, a positive diagnosis of any individual would require dismissal from the vessel until the individual is infection-free. A known, positive diagnosis would result in widespread testing and an additional Quaranteam period for the rest of the crew.
  • Careful monitoring of the health of the rest of the cohort. The crew may be required to disembark the vessel to conduct a deep cleaning.

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