COVID-19 FAQs for AFS-USA Volunteers

COVID-19 FAQs for AFS-USA Volunteers

Frequently Asked Questions Concerning Shortened Hosting Programs for Students in the U.S.

NOTE: New questions/responses will be posted as they become available. Please bookmark this page and refer to it regularly.

For Sponsored Programs Specific Frequently Asked Questions, please refer to this document.

What is my role as an AFS-USA Volunteer right now?

The role you play is especially critical. Two of the most important tasks that the organization needs from you is to aid in the local implementation of plans that are in place to return students to their home countries and to stay informed. All AFS Volunteers have a constant way to keep in touch with what is happening in the organization through MyAFS News. In addition, AFS is sending emails directly to your inbox and, in some cases, we will send a video message.

We ask for your cooperation, understanding, and, above all, your help as we focus on shortening our programs and returning all AFS students back to their families and home countries.

Should I cancel AFS in-person gatherings in my community?

Yes. In accordance with the guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO), we are recommending that we all avoid gatherings of ANY size to help prevent the ongoing spread of the coronavirus. It is time to try virtual gatherings! Contact if you need help setting up a virtual gathering. In the coming days we will also be sharing materials and resources so that volunteers may facilitate Pre-Return Orientation via webinar.

Are AFS Volunteers expected to assist with students getting to and transiting at airports?

We are asking AFS partners to book direct international flights with no transfers as we cannot provide assistance in transiting at airports, although we recognize this may not be possible in all situations. Host families are being asked to drive the students to the airport (if families live within 3 hours of the airport). Volunteers can help by making alternative arrangements if a host family cannot take the student to the airport. We are exploring transportation options for future groups of student departures that will continue in the many weeks ahead and understand that we must do what we can to minimize risks to our volunteers, students, families, and staff.

Can Students Program Release and remain with their Host Family?  If so, how?

No. Program Releases (currently referred to as Program Terminations) will not be permitted. Once travel is booked for a student, that student must return to their family and home country. If a medical professional declares that a student is ‘not fit to fly,’ AFS will of course continue to provide AFS support and services and that student will remain with their host family if at all possible. Students who voluntarily choose not to return on their AFS-arranged travel will be categorized as a Program Termination and will not have any access to AFS insurance that is provided nor any other services. Those students’ legal parents/ guardians will need to work with the AFS organization in the student’s home country to review and sign the necessary paperwork. Host families are not authorized to make this type of decision – only the student’s legal parents/guardians can do so.

Per the guidance provided by the Department of State, staff are required to update the SEVIS record of each participant when a program ends. The program end date will correspond with AFS arranged travel departure. While a 30-day grace period after a program termination applies, we strongly discourage AFS students from remaining in the US after the program ends. Students will be considered “out of status” following the 30-day grace period.

Individuals with a record of overstaying in the U.S. as a minor are handled on a case to case basis by US Consular or USCIS officials when applying for a new visa. Generally, they are not permitted to use the ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) to enter the U.S. even if coming from a visa waiver country. Adults (18 years or older) will be subject to the 3 year and 10-year ban depending on length of overstay.

Do I still need to complete monthly contacts for my students and host families? What about school contacts?

It is as important as ever that we continue the support of our participants by conducting required contacts and visits while practicing social distancing and following state and local guidelines. At this time we strongly discourage volunteers from meeting with participants and host families in person, even if your area is not under a shelter-in-place order. The spring in-person family contact (if not already completed in person) and any missing 30/60 day visits should be completed via video conference. Please see here for instructions on how to log each contact to reflect these modifications. Given the widespread school closures, you are not expected to complete the customary March-May school contact. Students who have departed will remain in the MyAFS Contacts and Visits widget to allow for recording of contacts and visits post-departure.

How should I do host family interviews?

Volunteers should conduct in-home interviews via video conference, being sure to view all areas of the home as required by the regulations. For NH20 placements, a follow-up visit in the home will need to take place prior to the student’s departure. In the event of an NH19 move for a student still on program, volunteers must record the interview if the family has not hosted previously with AFS. Please see here for instructions on how to complete the Form D for video interviews and follow-up procedures.

How can I help my students get the credit that they need?

Students need to work with their schools individually (and soon). While we hope that schools will provide them with that they need, in some cases school staff may not be working at the school office. If so, advise the students that they should make sure that they have the a school counselor’s email address so that they can easily follow-up when they are home. Unfortunately, AFS cannot guarantee nor facilitate school credit.

How will communication with schools be handled?
We have sent a message to all schools that programs are being shortened and students are returning to their families and home countries. US Students who are returning from their host countries will receive a letter to share with their US schools indicating that their programs have ended early. One purpose for this letter is to help students returning to the US to re-enroll in their high school with fewer delays. There are students in the US who are not able to return to their families because travel cannot be secured as of yet. We expect that it will take weeks for all AFS-USA Students to leave the US and return to their families.

When exactly will hosted students be going home?
We cannot tell you exactly when students will be going home. That’s because we are working in the most efficient way possible to send students home when/if we are successful in securing travel arrangements for them. Every country, and every area of the country, is different. We are also working very closely with AFS Partner office staff, the United States Department of State, while also following local, state, and national government travel recommendations to help organize return travel in the most efficient way possible. Options for travel vary country-to-country, gateway-to-gateway, and we are working around the clock to make travel arrangements as quickly as possible. Travel arrangements may look different for each student depending on where they are hosted, what country they are from, and to which destination(s) within their home country is the required final destination. We are systematically developing plans for each country group. Communication will continue as we receive additional information and plans are developed and confirmed.

Students are hearing different things from different people. What is true? Who has the best and most updated information?

Information is coming from many different directions–natural families, partner countries, schools, internet, social media sites, television, other students, etc. Not all information is accurate, as we know. Students should be following instructions coming from AFS-USA. Information and instructions may vary from student to student and AFS-USA will be providing official information with detailed instructions as it becomes available. Please reassure your students there are plans being made for each student.

What should we advise a host family if their student gets sick or another member of the host family gets sick?

Please follow your normal protocol for having students evaluated for any type of illness. Should a student need to go to the hospital for any type of illness or concern, please follow appropriate reporting protocols by alerting the student’s liaison, your local Volunteer Support Coordinator, Participant Support Specialist, and the AFS Duty Officer (if after hours).

Should you learn that a member of a host family is displaying symptoms of, will  be tested for, or has been diagnosed with COVID-19, please notify AFS immediately via email or by phone at 1-800-AFS-INFO ext9. Please also request that the host family follow all local government guidelines for reporting and quarantine.

Why can’t I get answers to my questions more quickly?  

It is often said that the best of AFS is brought out during a crisis (of whatever magnitude). The dedication of our volunteers and staff is one of the hallmarks of our organization’s reputation. It’s challenging, though, when information is difficult to obtain. In response, we have secured additional staff resources and reassigned current staff to make sure the focus is returning all of our students in an efficient manner as is possible. This is also in place to help us communicate responsively to the many questions and concerns coming to all of us from our stakeholders. Our communication challenges and how we manage them is an example of the AFS Staff and Volunteer partnership at its best.

Schools are closed. What are students supposed to be doing every day until they return home?
First, above all else, please do what you can to ensure that students practice social distancing. This is not a time for sightseeing, vacations, outings with friends, group gatherings, or other events. We should be following all local, state, and national social guidelines. Many museums are offering free virtual tours, schools are providing on-line learning options, libraries have e-reading options, and with Spring arriving, there are many outside exercising and activity opportunities. There are several great idea pages on-line for how to stay active and engaged during the COVID-19 outbreak. In addition, in the coming days, ICL and Participant Orientation staff will be sharing information and links with creative ideas to help students fight boredom and isolation at home, and they may learn something in the process!

How should I handle media?
Please do not initiate any outreach to media, even local media in your community. Even if you have an amazing, wonderful story to share, we ask that you do not contact media at this time. Instead, please share your story via email with We want to know about the inspirational stories out there that show AFS at its best!  If you are contacted by a media person, for any reason, the response is, “I am not a spokesperson for AFS-USA.  Please give me your information (name, publication/station, phone number, what topic you want to address and your deadline) and I will have someone get back to you.” Then, please send an email to Marlene Baker with as much information as you have. If you are further pressed to give information, you can provide Marlene’s email directly to them. Afterwards, and as quickly as possible, please email Marlene to let her know that a media person will be contacting her (and provide as much information as you were able to gather). NOTE: If you have time, it would be helpful if you also call Marlene to give her the heads up that a media person may contact her. Please call (646) 751-2006 and leave a message if you do not reach her. Please refer to the AFS-USA Media Policy for more information.

What about our programs that would depart later this year?

AFS has been operating programs for more than 70 years throughout all kinds of crises and challenges. While COVID-19 is an unprecedented event and we have had to shorten our programs and send students back home to their families, AFS Programs will continue well into the years ahead. Will we have challenges in the next program cycle? Undoubtedly we will. But our Study Abroad and Hosting Operations Teams continue to work with applicants and new applications continue to come in for placement in the United States. Application distribution processing, as well as student placement here and around the world, hasn’t stopped. We need to continue to sustain these critical organizational activities but, of course, in a sensitive manner. Whatever challenges we continue to face in this global crisis, we know that the need has never been greater for people to become more globally aware and competent. Our organization, our mission, and you are needed now, more than ever.

Isn’t it safer for my students to stay in the US rather than returning to their home countries? What steps can I take to keep them with their host families?

While it’s understandable that some students and families would prefer that the students stay in host communities, we’ve determined that the uncertainties of an evolving open-ended global pandemic necessitate the return of students to their home countries and families, as soon as travel can be arranged. Students who choose not to return to their home countries will forfeit their AFS program status which, in turn, results in a loss of medical insurance, AFS services, and visa status. Although the Department of State allows a 30-day “grace period” on visa status we strongly encourage all families and students to prepare for departures over the coming days and weeks.

Why are we sending students home when the CDC is recommending against unnecessary travel? Is it safe for students to be traveling?

The COVID-19 pandemic is unpredictable and is rapidly changing. Given the uncertainties of the future, it is critical for AFS to get our students home to their families. Some governments (including the government of Italy) are urging ALL of their citizens to return and, in some cases, are organizing charter flights to get their citizens home. The concern and generosity of so many of our host families is a very kind offer that reflects the bonds they’ve established with their students and their families. In facing so many unknowns, however, our students need to be with their parents/ guardians as more and more decisions may need to be made by families around the world as this crisis evolves. Many of those decisions involve medical procedures and must be managed by a student’s legal parents/guardians.

How are we prioritizing countries/departures? Why are some students going home before others?

There are a variety of factors that can influence the prioritization of countries. The reasons range from impending border closures, the rate of airline cancellations in/out of the sending country, the number of passengers in a country group, and, of course, the availability of seats for all of our students. Other factors can present themselves as well, but these are the most common. The priority list, meanwhile, is changed, sometimes completely, and often multiple times throughout the day. There are some cases where a small number of seats become available and are quickly reserved for only part of a country group.

With state to state travel being restricted in some places how do we get students to the airport if we have to cross state lines to do so?

In many cases, both here and abroad, travel between states and provinces is being allowed if an itinerary can be provided at the border checkpoint. Enabling a teenager to return to her/his country is generally viewed as an essential activity. The host family or volunteer should keep a copy of the flight itinerary for the return trip from the airport. If a border checkpoint refuses to allow passage, there is nothing we can do until the restriction is lifted.

Some countries are closing all incoming flights. Does that mean our student is not leaving?

Basically, yes, the student will not be able to leave until their home country lifts the closure of their airport(s). In a few such cases, embassies have been able to arrange for charter flights to get their citizens home, but we can’t rely on nor initiate this course of action.

If things get worse and our student has to stay beyond the June departure date am I expected to keep hosting them?

While a willingness to continue hosting the student is greatly appreciated, it is not required. AFS-USA will provide an alternate solution.

What about FLEX and YES program hosted students?

AFS-USA has received a letter intended for all placement organizations from the Department of State in which they have shared their intention to shorten the FLEX and YES programs. They have noted that the Department of State’s goal is to safely transfer all FLEX and YES students home at the earliest opportunity.

Given the level of crisis in Italy, are there special considerations for them?

AFS in Italy (Intercultura) is providing each student with a signed document stating that the student is traveling home, potentially accompanied by a relative: the decrees recently issued by the Italian Government to fight the COVID-19 pandemic explicitly exclude the cases of students going back to Italy (Italian citizens who are abroad for study reasons are encouraged to go back to Italy and are allowed to reach their hometown) and for relatives collecting them at the airport—one person is allowed to reach the airport to collect a relative traveling from abroad.

Regarding the return of the students to Italy, it is important to note that AFS Italy (Intercultura) has been working closely with the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the network of the Italian Embassies and Consulates abroad. AFS-USA has been advised by AFS Italy (Intercultura) that these institutions support the return of the students to their home countries, due to the fact that no one can predict how the situation will evolve in the local community where the students are currently hosted. Over the last few days more than 500 Italian students from different countries have already traveled and returned home safely.

As stated by AFS Intercultural Programs in Italy, “We  strongly believe it is in the best interest of our participants to be back with their natural families in their home countries in these uncertain times and the large majority of the Italian families have applauded this decision and have expressed gratitude for the efforts in organizing the return of the students.

This entire process of getting students home seems to be moving at a snail’s pace. If we don’t move promptly, more countries’ borders will close. What’s going on?

Moving approximately 7,000 students between all AFS Partners is a complex and, at time, overwhelming. In short, we have never faced this type of challenge before and it is a strain on our system. However, in true AFS fashion, staff in all countries have re-directed their energies toward this monumental task, with daily improvements that make the process more manageable by the day.

Many volunteers and host families will check Expedia or airline sites and find themselves bewildered by the seeming availability of flights. Why doesn’t AFS reserve those seats?

These piecemeal flights are accompanied by a variety of risks and almost always fail to meet the transportation needs of AFS.

Will AFS provide travelers with masks and antiseptic hand sanitizers?

AFS-USA is unable to guarantee any PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). Students can try to obtain these items in their host communities before they travel, although finding PPE will probably be very difficult if not impossible. As such, AFS-USA cannot guarantee that students will be able to obtain PPE before travelling.

Why can’t AFS keep host families and students better-informed? The absence of information is unnerving.

It’s simple. The situation with airlines, airports, countries, changing regulations, lack of seats on planes, and other factors that are constantly changing make it nearly impossible to keep everyone informed as much as we would like. This is made especially difficult (even impossible) since the circumstances can be different for each individual student. For example, a Malaysian student is hosted in a community where the nearest airport that remains open is a 4-hour drive away. Another Malaysian is located in Los Angeles and has been successfully booked on a non-stop flight home. Same country, individual challenges and hurdles. There simply aren’t enough staff in place to send every student and host family regular updates that are specific to them. Staff resources are focused on making the arrangements and communicating them to host families and students as they are completed.

Since AFS has canceled all in person events and activities, where can I find resources for offering online orientations and support to students and host families?

There is a new section on My AFS Help and Learning titled ‘Covid-19: Online Orientation and Support Resources’. HERE you will find a variety of resources designed to encourage the value of learning in crisis and cultivate additional opportunities for self-reflection during this challenging time. Currently there are one-pagers covering topics like managing stress and disappointment, and tips for curbing boredom. You will also find recommended webinar materials, for completing your Pre-Return and Re-entry Orientations. We will continue to post more to this page as additional materials are shared/developed.

What if my team isn’t able to offer a Pre-Return Orientation Webinar locally, or some of my students are set to depart before our team’s planned webinar? Are there any National Pre-Return Orientation Webinars?

Yes. Beginning Tuesday March 31st, National PRO Webinars will be offered every Tuesday from 2-4pm EST, through April 21. Due to virtual space limitations, we kindly ask that you prioritize registering students who are expected to travel in the coming week. Click HERE to register your students for an upcoming date. Once registered, they will receive a confirmation email with the link to join and handouts for use during the webinar.

How do I know if my students are expected to travel in the coming week or have confirmed travel arrangements?

Please refer to emails sent by AFS-USA President Tara Hofmann, also available in MyAFS News, to see which students are expected to travel each week. You can also check travel plans for all hosted students in your area team by pulling a ‘Departure Travel Detail by Area Team’ Report in Global Link. You can check for an individual’s travel plans through MyAFS. Instructions for both can be found HERE.

I see there are materials to help students manage and process this experience, but what about our host families? Where can I find online resources to help support them through the shortened program and the return of their AFS Students?

Volunteers can access resources to support Host Families whose students have already left on the COVID-19 Online Orientations and Support Resources section of My AFS Help and Learning, located HERE. The information includes links and handouts for host parents and includes a webinar designed to provide an opportunity for host families to reflect on their AFS experience as a whole, recognize what they have learned from the experience and how they may apply that learning in the future. The webinar includes guided reflection activities and features a short interview with Dr. Michael Leidecker (former AFS Staff and current AFS Mental Health Consultant), discussing ways to help host families process the sudden departure of their students and cope with continued uncertainty.

Area Teams are encouraged to offer this webinar locally to host parents after their students have returned home. For those host parents who are not able to attend a local webinar, National Webinars will also be offered. Click HERE to register your host parents (name, email and Area Team are required) or share the link with them to enter their information directly.

Where can I find resources to help support Returnees in my area whose programs were cut short due to COVID-19? Are National Webinars being offered for this group of students also?

Resources for Returnees whose program were cut short due to Covid-19 can be found on the the COVID 19 Online Orientations and Support Resources section of My AFS Help and Learning, located HERE.

The information includes links and handouts to help Returnees reflect on their overall experience, and how they’ve grown and changed as a result of going abroad. The webinar content features guided reflection, a facilitated Q&A session with a Returnee, as well as a short video interview with Dr. Michael Leidecker (former AFS Staff and current AFS Mental Health Consultant), discussing ways to help navigate the extra layer of ambiguity and uncertainty Covid-19 adds to the re-adjustment process.

Area teams are encouraged to offer this content locally to Returnees if possible. For those teams who are unable to offer a local webinar, or whose students are not able to attend as scheduled National Re-Entry Orientation Webinars will also be offered. Click HERE to register your Returnees (name, email and Area Team will be requested) or share the link with them to enter their information directly.

My student/a Returnee in my Team is asking about signing up for the Global Competence Certificate (GCC). What is this and how can they sign up?

AFS-USA is offering the Global Competence Certificate (GCC), on a complimentary basis to US Returnees whose program was shortened by COVID-19. The GCC is an online course created by AFS International for AFS Partners around the globe to use that offers Returnees the opportunity to continue their intercultural learning through connecting with AFSers from around the world and receiving support from trained AFS facilitators who will guide them through live webinars, forum discussions, interactive online modules and reflection activities. All learning in the GCC happens on a ‘mobile-friendly’ platform.

Once Returnees are enrolled, the assigned facilitator will hold live video sessions every week. Interested Returnees should plan to spend approximately 12-15 hours during the next 4-6 weeks to take part in the course and receive the full benefits. Upon program completion, Returnees will receive an official Global Competence Certificate from AFS that becomes part of their personal portfolio of experiences as a global citizen.

Please note that while AFS-USA is only offering this opportunity to US Returnees, many other AFS Partners are also providing this program to their students — both those that have returned home and those still sheltered in place in the US. Hosted students should contact their Sending Partner Office to inquire about signing up.


Refer to the Helpful Language MyAFS article when talking about COVID-19 and AFS.

There are many additional questions being presented to AFS Staff and Volunteers every day. Please don’t hesitate to send questions and concerns to which you are unable to respond to