GAFS - COVID-19 Updates

Situation Update (03-03-2021)

The COVID-19 pandemic caused the cancellation of our entire 2020 season. Vaccines are now being distributed worldwide, but we don’t know where Ireland, the USA, Canada, or any other country will be in Summer 2021. Everybody is hoping that things will be better, so we can only plan for a great summer and then deal with what comes along. The current situation in Ireland is not good – a very sharp increase in cases, and in hospital admissions, in late December and early January put significant pressure on our healthcare system and led to restrictions on work, education, transport and travel. Here is a graphic showing the cumulative cases per 100k in Ireland, in the UK (our nearest neighbour), and in the USA and Canada, the two countries where most of our students come from:

The cumulative case chart (above) shows COVID-19 cases in Ireland rising towards levels seen in the USA and the UK, but the true severity of the upsurge in cases can be seen in a chart showing the 7-day rolling average of new cases (below). New cases in Ireland peaked on 10 January and then fell rapidly due to the imposition of COVID-related restrictions on work, travel and education, but the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Ireland during the post-Christmas period has clearly made forward planning difficult. It has led to GAFS taking a very conservative approach to Summer 2021 – it is simply too early to say if our plans will be viable.

The fatality rate in Ireland remains relatively low (below) and we have a considerable way to go before we see case numbers like those in the UK or the USA, but a surge in our 7-day rolling average fatality rate (bottom) from mid-January to early February has been slow to subside and our hospitals are likely to be under pressure for several weeks to come.

The Irish government currently requires all passengers arriving into Ireland to have a negative or ‘not detected’ COVID-19 RT-PCR test not more than 72 hours before their arrival in Ireland. Passengers arriving from all non-EU/EEA countries are requested to restrict their movements for 14 days and, furthermore, legislation has been drafted to introduce mandatory hotel quarantine for all travellers arriving from 33 specified countries, and for all travellers arriving from any country without a valid negative PCR test. Ireland has been under a Level 5 lockdown since late December and these restrictions are due to continue until at least 5 April. Some children went back to school on 1 March, all pubs and cultural attractions are closed, non-essential travel is prohibited, all workers are working from home unless their presence is required as part of an essential service, and people are required to stay within 5km of their home unless they must travel beyond that distance for essential reasons.

Proposed Strategy

Firstly, we have delayed our booking schedule for Summer 2021 and have advised all students to adopt a wait-and-see strategy. A handful of students have booked already, but we still have about 15 spots available in each session so there is no need to rush. We continue to stress that booking is not necessary in the short term – we would rather wait until we have weathered the coming storm and then take lots of bookings in March/April.

With regard to the procedures we may adopt for the summer, we are considering our options on several fronts:

    • If a vaccine is available, we may require documentary proof of vaccination
    • We may require documentary proof of a negative COVID-19 test in the days before travel
    • We may require students to arrive 14 days before their course starts in order to enter an isolation period

These are only options – we may require some, all, or none of them depending on the circumstances prevailing at the time. We are likely to give students options, since we are not comfortable with the idea of ‘mandatory’ vaccinations – for example, we may allow vaccinated students to join courses as normal, whereas non-vaccinated students may be required to arrive 14 days early, self-isolate for two weeks and provide evidence of a negative COVID-19 test.

We may require everyone to wear masks in our bus (our van in North American terminology). We may seek to limit student numbers in our apartments, putting 2 or 3 students in each 4-bed apartment, instead of the usual complement of 4.

The apartment complex where we house our students has 147 apartments, so there are options available to us. If students are required to isolate for 14 days upon arrival in Ireland, we will try to deploy a system whereby students can be housed in our student apartment complex for this period. They will be grouped in ‘pods’ of 2, 3 or 4 ‘isolating students’ and will be kept separate from ‘current students’. For example, while 10 students (in apartments 45, 46, and 52) are doing Session 1 in late May / early June, we could have 14 students (in apartments 8, 27, 61, and 112) isolating in pods for 14 days while waiting for Session 2 to start. Every student gets their own bedroom as usual, but each apartment will be shared with 1, 2 or 3 other students on the same course. The isolating students will be given advice on ordering food online, but they will have to remain in their apartments (apart from daily outdoor exercise, if possible). It doesn’t sound like much fun, but there is WiFi in each apartment, a TV, and lots of space for books! If 14-days of pre-course isolation is required, there will obviously be an additional cost for an extra 14 days accommodation, but we will keep this cost as low as possible and we are currently estimating it at €330 to €360.

I must stress that these are all possible courses of action – nothing will be finalised until March or April at the earliest.

Booking and Refunds

We usually encourage students to book their spot on their chosen course right away, but this year we are taking a more cautious approach. We suggest that booking before 1 February is not required, so let’s all wait a few months and see how things pan out. If we see a huge increase in applications and begin to think that we may run out of spots, we will contact the applicants in the order in which they applied. For example, if we receive hundreds of applications in mid-January, we contact all the November applicants and encourage them to book, then wait ten days to allow those bookings to come in before contacting all December applicants, and so on…

With regard to refunds on fees for cancellations, if we are forced to cancel a course due to COVID-19 restrictions (or any other international crisis that is outside of our control), we will offer 100% refunds to the students on that course. If we run a course as planned, but a student booked on that course cannot enter Ireland due to a government-imposed travel restriction, we will offer a 100% refund to that student. On the other hand, if a student opts to cancel their participation in a course, we will offer them our standard 90% refund (retaining 10% to cover administrative costs). This 90% refund is available up to 6 weeks before course commencement at a minimum – in 2020 we improved this offer to allow students to cancel closer to the start date (due to uncertainty caused by COVID) and we may do this again in 2021.