By JOYCE HANZ, Tribune-Review

BRACKENRIDGE, Pa. (AP) — Beatrice Latina will take back to Rome a memorable souvenir from her experience living in the Alle-Kiski Valley.

Her covid recovery story.

Latina, nicknamed “Bi Bi” by her friends, is from Italy and the sole foreign exchange student at Highlands High School in Harrison.

She tested positive for covid-19 about two months after moving into her Brackenridge host family home in September.

A 14-day quarantine ensued.

“I lost my smell for four months and taste for two months,” Latina said. “I was tired and had headaches, but I’m OK now.”

The pandemic has altered the way foreign exchange programs operate. Students from abroad have been forced to not only adjust to a new culture, but also navigate restrictions that have limited their experience and expectations.

All the while, organizers have grappled with a drop in participation with few schools and families in the Valley able to host students.

“Our placement goal nationally is at about 50%,” said Kathy Harenski of Harrison, the liaison coordinator for Highlands American Field Service. “Instead of about 1,800 students, AFS is placing about 1,000 nationally.”

Latina is one of two foreign exchange students placed by AFS (American Field Service) in Western Pennsylvania.

Normally, about 35 students travel to experience about 10 months enrolled in area public high schools, Harenski said.

Harenski, who has been placing exchange students since 2011 in the Highlands School District, said Highlands usually has more exchange students, but the pandemic affected attendance during the 2020-21 academic year.

“We only have one student now, Bi Bi, but we do have three students from Denmark, Germany and Spain confirmed for fall attendance at Highlands,” Harenski said.

AFS hosts exchange students from 90 countries.

Harenski said fall student placement numbers appear more promising.

“We have a goal of placing about 25 students in the Eastern Lakes Region, which is right on the benchmark,” Harenski said. “I think people understand that a student coming in is going to be traveling safely, and they will be at no greater or less risk than anyone else, and the value of the program and benefit for them far outweighs the risk.”

A senior, Latina’s host “mom” is Kaci Bollinger, a five-time exchange student host.

Latina said she didn’t hesitate to travel to the United States for 10 months, even during a pandemic.

“It was too important for me because I wanted to learn a language and experience the culture,” Latina said.

She said her family in Italy has it “worse” because of lockdown conditions, and her sister and mother had covid-19 but recovered.

Latina describes herself as “independent” and is cast in the upcoming spring production of “Mamma Mia.”

“It’s cool here because in Italy we don’t have musicals and sports in school. I’m singing and dancing and making friends,” Latina said.

Bollinger said she has prioritized making things as “normal” as possible for Latina.

“She has missed out on so many things. It’s important to give her some extra memories that are extra special, since this year hasn’t been normal,” Bollinger said.

Those memories include trips to Tampa, Fla., Ohio and an upcoming vacation to Las Vegas.

“Some people may feel that we are wrong for traveling, but she deserves some normalcy and should be able to see as much as she can. When we travel, we are sure to protect ourselves and others and follow all covid protocol,” Bollinger said.

Latina said she will miss American breakfasts when she returns to Rome in July.

“We don’t eat sausages and eggs in Italy for breakfast. I love going to Denny’s. There’s a lot of fast food here.”

Julian Gloudemans, 18, of Amsterdam said his decision to live and study in the United States was time sensitive.

A senior, Gloudemans is the only exchange s
tudent enrolled at Pine-Richland High School this year.

“It was my last year of eligibility,” Gloudemans said. “Covid was pretty bad in the Netherlands when I left, but then America caught up quickly.”

He said life back home is more restricted than living with his host family in Richland Township.

“In Amsterdam, there’s a curfew and people have to stay indoors at 9 p.m., so I’m glad to be over here instead during covid. It’s more of a lockdown there.”

Julian’s host “mother,” Sue Adams, has hosted five times.

She said the main difference hosting this year is the isolation students are experiencing.

“We’re trying to expose him to as much of our American culture as is possible in these times of social distancing,” Adams said.

“Julian has gone through the presidential election, carved Halloween pumpkins, hiked, cross-country skied, experienced an American Christmas and New Year’s.”

What’s missing this year for Julian is the traditional high school events such as football games, dances and clubs.

“He tells you that he can’t miss what he doesn’t have,” Adams said.

Gloudemans said he has been a little “disappointed” that covid-19 has affected his travel restrictions during his year abroad.

“I wanted to see the Grand Canyon. I like to hike and camp,” Gloudemans said.

Highlands is one of several local school districts welcoming exchange students this fall, even during covid-19 restrictions.

Kiski Area High School Principal Chad Roland said there are no exchange students currently enrolled in the district, but that could change.

“We’ve had exchange students in the past, and I don’t recall a year where we’ve had more than one student, but they can enroll for the fall. We require students be placed by reputable agencies,” Roland said.

Leechburg Area School District Superintendent Tiffany Nix said the district doesn’t have any exchange students on campus, and exchange students currently are prohibited from enrolling because of covid.

Fox Chapel Area School District mirrors Leechburg Area, with no foreign exchange students enrolled.

“It’s still a bit too early to say if we will have any (exchange students) next school year, ” said Bonnie Berzonski, district coordinator of communications.

Deer Lakes, Burrell, New Kensington-Arnold, Springdale and Freeport Area school districts reported having zero foreign exchange students right now.

Deer Lakes High School Principal Pat Baughman said covid-19 restrictions have not hindered their exchange student acceptance policy. He said one student scheduled to arrive in the fall ended up at a different high school because of a scheduling conflict and one exchange student is slated to possibly enroll this fall.

“We are willing to accept kids (exchange students) this year,” Baughman said.

Peggy Jackson, regional director for Pax, a nonprofit providing global education and exchange opportunities for students from 70 countries, said covid-19 has disrupted what is traditionally the prime recruitment season for fall student placement.

“Our biggest placing happens in the spring. Right now, it’s the uncertainty with covid-19 with the schools,” Jackson said.

“Families may be out of work, and schools aren’t making decisions on whether or not to accept students.”

Jackson said, overall, Pax expects to place about 200 fewer students from the usual 800 to 900 in the U.S. this year.

She noted host families are not paid and choose to host students for a variety of reasons.

Students have their own spending money and health insurance.

“They (host) because they love the culture, rewards of having another culture in your house. Everyone in the family gets to experience the exchange student, and it’s an experience you can all share,” Jackson said.

Some countries, such as China and Ecuador, don’t permit student placement at this time because of the pandemic.

Jackson cited individual school educational models as a challenge for placement during COVID-19.

“The biggest obstacle is, we don’t place students in virtual learning schools. At the minimum, it has to be a hybrid,” Jackson said.

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