CIEE Response to Department of State Travel Advisories

Authored By:

Bill Bull
On April 19, 2021, the US Department of State (DOS) implemented a change in the methodology for their advisory level system. The apparent intention by the DOS was to add further weight from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID-19 country advisory levels into the formulation of new DOS advisory levels.
In the past, CIEE has considered the implementation of a DOS Travel Advisory of Level 3 or 4 in any country to be a serious concern and all options were evaluated with respect to student safety, including program termination. CIEE will, of course, continue to monitor changing DOS and CDC advisory levels, but due to the recent changes in methodology, we will rely less heavily on them in our country risk assessments. We have made this decision for the following reasons:
1. The newly calculated advisory levels lack nuance
Traveling to Germany is not equally risky as traveling to Yemen or North Korea. After the updated methodology, so many countries have been assigned Travel Advisory Level 4 that the designation becomes essentially meaningless, overlooking vast differences in risk profiles between countries.
It is important to note that on the DOS website FAQ section, it states:
After this update, approximately 80% of countries will have a Travel Advisory Level of 4: Do Not Travel. This does not necessarily indicate a change to the current health situation in a given country. It reflects an adjustment in our system to give more weight to CDC's existing assessments.”
CIEE therefore reminds current and future participants that the sudden change in DOS advisory level in many of our countries does not necessarily constitute a material change in risk to your health and safety. 
2. Travel prohibitions factor into the calculation of DOS advisory levels using the new methodology, and travel prohibitions alone are not a health or safety risk
Prior to the pandemic, entry and exit requirements varied across all countries. The addition of requirements to enter a country due to the pandemic or the prohibition of travel, should not be a factor in raising “risk” level because travel prohibitions in themselves, are not a direct threat to student safety.  
As stated previously, CIEE Centers will only be operational where we can confidently accept participants to begin their studies with reasonable entry conditions (e.g. a COVID-19 test prior and possibly upon arrival, a reasonable quarantine upon arrival, proof of a yellow fever vaccine, an approved student visa, proof of a COVID-19 vaccine, etc.) 

Additional thoughts on the utility of DOS advisory levels

Regardless of CDC or DOS travel advisories, CIEE will only operate or plan to operate in countries where we have assessed that testing and medical care is readily available and where we can mitigate risks while still ensuring students have an academically rigorous and culturally enriching experience.
The global pandemic has upended the traditional framework for assessing risk in study abroad. As I outlined in an essay late last year, we should no longer assume that the United States is the “better than” place to which other locations should be compared. While the DOS doesn't issue travel advisories for the United States, at present, the U.S. is actually a CDC Level 4 on their map of risk assessment by location.
Lastly, DOS guidance and advice is geared toward the average American traveler, not toward a student studying abroad on a CIEE program, who has a completely different risk and, more importantly, support profile. Our students are supported before travel by a team of experienced advisors, then supported immediately upon arrival and throughout the program by an experienced locally based staff who are explicitly trained on enhanced health protocols and are ready to respond immediately to any participant emergencies or needs.

Perspective from the Overseas Security Advisory Council

The Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) stated in its latest guidance on April 19, 2021, “This shift [in methodology used by the Department of State] may require many OSAC members to reassess or adjust COVID-19 protocols tied to Department of State Travel Advisories…”.  
They also state that “Like any other indicator, OSAC members should not necessarily view CDC THNs or Department of State Travel Advisories as a singular tripwire, evacuating staff or cutting programs the moment a level increases or restarting operations the moment they decrease. Rather, OSAC encourages private-sector organizations to incorporate the information in this system into their travel security protocols…alongside other indicators such as those in OSAC Country Security Reports, foreign government security assessments, and/or assessments from travel security providers."

CIEE will treat DOS advisories as one of many important indicators

We have found a more robust analysis is called for when considering risk to study abroad participants, and would like to call your attention to the CIEE HRI which is updated bi-weekly on our website.
CIEE first developed this risk index for COVID-19 in April 2020, when it became apparent that DOS and CDC advisory levels would be insufficient to meet our needs of responsible, timely, accurate, and nuanced risk management with the CIEE participant’s risk in mind. For more than a year we have been calculating the HRI using multiple metrics (including prevalence of the virus, infection rates, transmission types, slope of new daily cases and mortality rates, health infrastructure ratings, and more) derived from multiple sources.
We are happy to speak with any institutional partners who, in response to this latest shift in DOS methodology, find themselves revisiting their risk management protocols that were based on the DOS Travel Level Advisory system.
If you would like to discuss any of the above, please contact our Health Safety and Security Team at