I had no idea what “bubble formation” meant when I agreed to attend The High School Away program in Monteverde, Costa Rica.
The safety pre-cautions we were urged to take prior to the start of High School Away were only the first steps to being able to enjoy all that the Monteverde Global Institute has to offer. In order to form the Covid-19 free “bubble” on the CIEE’s campus, students had to follow strict protocols during the first week of the program to protect their peers, the staff, and themselves from getting sick. In addition to the negative PCR Covid-19 test prior to departure, students were required to wear masks for the entirety of the first week. The only time students were not wearing masks was either in their private rooms, or during meals where they were socially distanced throughout the dining hall. Students could only sit where they were assigned during the first week, and the classrooms were not available for students to congregate indoors to study. Students could not enter each other’s rooms, and for full-group activities students had to be split into two groups. Basically, we were in bubble bootcamp. But it eventually paid off, and we had some fun along the way.
One area that students were allowed to spend time in together was the open-air Recreation Room, which has a foosball table, fireplace, board games, and a big screen TV. While games were not allowed during our week of quarantine protocols, students were allowed to watch movies together at night. This quickly became a pastime after dinner, with our group watching The Conjuring, Madagascar, The Blair Witch Project, Sinister, Megamind, and Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs all in the first week. If you are sensing a theme, it’s because I believe every other night students needed a horror movie cleanse from the night before. I haven’t slept well since The Blair Witch Project (probably because I’m the only one who remembers how scary this movie was when it came out). It doesn’t help that we are also living in the middle of the forest, but the participants don’t seem fazed.
In addition to nightly movies, students have taken advantage of the hiking trails on campus daily. Many students organize their own hikes on the El Nino trail, which allows a view of the sunset. Our first week was a mix of storms and sunshine, and regardless of the forecast, students trekked up to watch the sunset without fail. In addition to the El Nino trail, students enjoy hiking to the “river” which is actually a creek at the edge of campus. The water is shallow and calm and on warm days, students can put their feet in the water and enjoy sitting on the rocks. During the first Saturday of the program, students were able to explore the longer trails on campus in two groups along with the Resident Advisors. The Camino Royal trail is about a kilometer in length and goes down a narrow path into the cloud forest, where the trees are so dense the sun is blocked out. The river can be heard in the distance as you go deeper into the forest. At the end, there is a sharp ascent, which either brings students back to main campus or to the Cabinas, depending on the route they take. This is beautiful but hilly trail, made all the more difficult by hiking in a mask. Students were also able to explore the trails that intersect the El Nino trail, so that by the end of Saturday, they had walked all of hiking trails on CIEE’s campus. Along the way, students were able to see the Botanical Garden on campus, the tree nursery, the sustainable garden, the farm (complete with cows and pigs), the chicken coop and the biodigester.
CIEE offers three activities each day, which are all optional for students. During the first week, while we formed the bubble, these activities included milking cows, composting, setting up bird feeders, nature walks and lots of hikes to the river and El Nino. However, a parent recently asked me what kids look forward to the most, and I had to answer honestly: spending time with one another. Even with masks and distance, the 24 students spent the first week doing all the things you’d expect teens to do who haven’t been able to see each other in a while. They looked up each other’s birth charts, made Tik Toks, and played 2 truths and a lie. They screamed when something made a noise in the dark or complained to each other about how much homework they had. In essence, they were normal kids, which feels like a luxury these days. By the end of the first week, many students are adjusting to their school schedules, sleeping accommodations, and protocols in place on campus. And all of our collective hard work paid off yesterday, when we received the news that everyone on campus was Covid-19 negative.
The news that we were all COVID-negative arrived in our phones at the same time, exactly when I was in an online meeting with colleagues. The squeals of joy reached my team in Portland! When notified, students ripped off their masks and yelled with joy. They hugged each other for the first time. A student began playing the piano (which had previously been off limits) in the library. We hosted a second orientation, because now that we are a Covid-19 free campus, there are new privileges that students can enjoy in addition to continued protocols to maintain our safe bubble.
Now that our bubble is formed, our campus feels more alive. All CIEE programs are running safely on campus with our students and staff. We are excited for students to be able to partake in more group activities, like soccer, board games, and dancing, along with the chance to see some of Costa Rica’s natural beauty off campus. What a difference a week makes!