An Important Update to the iEARN-USA Community on Our Response to COVID-19

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Dear iEARN Community,

I hope you and your families are healthy and staying safe. I think it’s fair to say that when iEARN-USA closed our office in mid-March, no one could have predicted the severity of COVID-19. Since I last wrote, New York City has become the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S. and, tragically, over 19,000 people in the city have lost their lives to this virus. At this point, no one knows when New York City will be ready to reopen, but it is likely several months away. Fortunately, the iEARN-USA team is safely working from their homes, and the measures we took to keep the team healthy have been successful.

As every sector of society has turned to video conferencing and online interactions, iEARN-USA is in a unique position to help students, teachers, schools, and other organizations leverage technology to create meaningful connections while social distancing. Over the last two months, the iEARN-USA team has adjusted our plans in order to provide essential resources and support to address immediate needs while thinking about and planning for the long-term impact the current crisis will have on the way we learn, work, and live.  

COVID-19 has had a big impact on the study abroad programs we implement, namely the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program and the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) Program. We were all disappointed that our academic-year NSLI-Y program was cut short and our summer program cancelled.  To keep students engaged and interested in language learning, our team has facilitated virtual workshop sessions and coordinated virtual language instruction with teachers in Seoul, South Korea. In addition, the NSLI-Y team has also hosted two virtual events for NSLI-Y Interactive where students have been able to connect with NSLI-Y alumni and in-country peers.   

As a member of the Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program consortium, each year, iEARN welcomes over 170 high school students to the U.S. for an academic exchange year. The students come from eight countries with significant Muslim populations. The escalation of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., travel restrictions, and border closures have made it challenging to return students to their home countries. Over the last two months, over 100 YES students have safely returned home to their families. While over 60 students remain on program in the U.S., iEARN-USA continues to closely monitor the situation and work closely with our international partners to secure safe flights home for the remaining students at the earliest possible date.

As of today, the 2020–2021 academic year YES and NSLI-Y programs are still planned to move forward. The ability to implement academic year programs is dependent upon the ability for students to safely travel and upon schools’ ability to safely reopen. As this is still very much in the air, we are putting together a contingency plan. The iEARN-USA team is working with our partners to develop plans and curriculum to support a virtual YES and NSLI-Y program should fall programs be delayed or cancelled.  

As the demand for virtual classroom resources escalated and the need for professional development to effectively use these platforms became evident, our team released a number of tools and resources to the learning community. We provided educators with free access to iEARN projects and the Collaboration Centre, our safe and secure online platform, as well as a free, special session of Hello World, a modified Learning Circle perfect for virtual exchange novices.  

Last month, iEARN-USA launched our Wednesdays with the World webinar series. Each week, guest iEARN facilitators have shared activities from iEARN projects and iEARN-USA team members have shared tips and tools for creating an engaging virtual classroom. 

At iEARN-USA, we want to do our part in strengthening the educational exchange community and we believe that we are stronger working together. We are partnering with other organizations to provide training and access to our Collaboration Centre, enabling them to transition physical exchange programs to virtual programming.

This is a challenging time for everyone, and the future remains uncertain. Every day, I am deeply grateful for my amazing team, the iEARN network of teachers and students, and the opportunity to bring the world closer together in a real and meaningful way. The journey forward will not be easy, and we will all have to work hard to overcome many obstacles. Our goal is to provide the global education community with the tools, resources, and projects necessary to ensure quality education programming even in these tough times. By working together, we will get through this challenge and continue our mission of improving the quality of life on this planet.


Stefanie Ortiz-Cidlik, Executive Director, iEARN-USA