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Ashland exchange students called home

When their college studies abroad got cut short by coronavirus, several Ashland students found themselves stressed and scrambling to beat border closures and fly home in the past few days to families.

One, Indie Reynolds, 18, a graduate of Ashland High School, was in Italy, enjoying the past six months as a Rotary-sponsored student studying Italian.

Rumors began to grow about coronavirus, said Reynolds. All schools closed. Everyone had to work from home. No one was allowed to leave houses, except to markets. Police actively enforced the lockdown.

Italy rapidly became the most virus-stricken country in Europe. Reynolds was teaching in Alghero on the island of Sardinia, a couple hundred miles off the Italy coast. Rotary emailed her to get home pronto.

“It was quick,” said Indie, in an interview. “Borders were closing in all countries. My family thought I should come home, but it would be dangerous going through Rome because they were stopping all flights out to America,” this after President Donald Trump’s speech banning flights to the U.S. from Europe.

“The whole process was crazy. My mom bought very expensive tickets out,” says Indie. “The government there said we couldn’t leave the island. We called the embassy, and they said we have the right to leave. The police were giving tickets with huge fines if you had no authorization to drive, but we had to drive to an airport at the other end of the island.

“We couldn’t say goodbye to friends. Everything was shut down. Our host mom packed us food because she didn’t want me to eat at the airport. We had gloves, eye protection, wipes. It was like trying to escape the apocalypse. The Rome airport was empty. I had a row of seats on the plane to myself. It was all surreal.”

After dealing with the intense reality of the plague in Italy, Indie arrived in Los Angeles at LAX, where security breezed her through and a barista, she says, laughed at her mask and eye protection.

“It was crazy, coming from a country devastated by virus, the economy devastated, people unable to leave houses, and here it was scary how easy it was to get in and no one had masks. People here are not really aware of what’s happening.”

She is self-isolating in Ashland with her sister Barritt Reynolds, a Lewis & Clark College sophomore in international affairs, who was on a four-month study trip in Ecuador. Ten of them were launching on a trip Monday to the Amazon when borders started closing, with 48 hours notice, and all were urgently ordered home.

“Things escalated quickly,” says Barritt, in a phone interview. “We were worried Trump would close the U.S. border. Three-fourths of flights out were canceled. It was a crazy time, one of the most stressful days of my life. We were in line five hours at the airport. Everyone got a boarding pass but me, because I wrote my last name twice. I cried and had to run the length of the airport (to fix it). There were no rules. People were pushing and starting their own lines.”

They had to connect in Lima, Peru, for a flight to Houston, but Peru announced a border shutdown for midnight, only hours away. The airline moved the flight up half an hour, so it flew at 5 minutes to midnight. They had to make the flight or be stuck in a strange land, probably for months.

They were “brokenhearted” having to bid farewell to friends within a few minutes. Two girls didn’t make it on the last flight out of Peru, and a Lewis & Clark professor chose to stay with them, she said, and the trio are now trying to get the State Department to make a flight possible for all the Americans who need to get home.

The students actually had “wheels up” some minutes after Peru locked down and, on the plane to America, they all broke into a “crazy dance party” with surgical masks still on. She arrived home Wednesday, “slept real hard” and, in a self-imposed two weeks of isolation, plans to watch all eight seasons of “Game of Thrones” with her sister.

Looking back on the adventure, Barritt says, “As young people, I can see it’s every young person’s job to quarantine, though we’re at less risk of dying. If we don’t, we would be killing people. It’s really crucial to stunting the curve (lowering the number of infected people early on).

“Remember, too, that lots of college students have been left without homes or a place to get food — and our government hasn’t been supplying aid. It’s a scary time, and we all should be supporting each other. It’s going to hit our health care system really hard. Everyone had a mask on but, when I got the U.S., no one did.”

On the same Lewis & Clark study program and on the same flight, Alex Webb of Talent, a Spanish-biology sophomore, said students were pulled out of Ecuador, not because of the disease but mainly because of travel restrictions.

“I didn’t feel unsafe,” Webb said, “but it’s good we got out when we did. We got the last flight out of Peru. It was stressful at times. We got there at 10 at night. There were huge lines, and the travel ban had just been announced. We got the last flight out.

“The Trump speech didn’t freak me out too much because it was just a ban on travel from Europe, but it showed the incompetence of the federal government handling of this so far. They (in South America) were doing a better job than us. We have a long way to go, especially in testing.”

Alex is in voluntary quarantine here with his mother, Ann Fielder, who says, “There seemed to be no virus in Ecuador, but they had to go through so much personal contact in four airports, with hundreds crammed in Lima like herd animals.”

Sabrina Scoggin, a 2015 graduate of Ashland High and 2019 grad of University of Redlands, had been working in Spain for a year as an English conversation teacher for elementary kids near Madrid.

Spain was already on isolation in houses, no unnecessary trips out under pain of arrest — then came the Sunday Trump speech about shutdown of flights from Europe.

“My parents wanted me home because they didn’t know what that speech meant. It was a frantic situation, scary crazy. I had three hours to pick up my entire life and say goodbye to my friend I lived with and get on the plane.”

She is isolating at her parents’ home in Ashland, FaceTiming friends in Spain, studying, and “my life is on hold, but I hope to go back soon.” She does jigsaw puzzles with her parents and sister, a senior at Ashland High, who is doing online classes with teachers there, says their mother, Parveneh Scoggin.

Gabriella Safay, on a full-ride Ford Foundation scholarship at Oregon State University, where she is a junior in environmental studies, was in Brighton, England, about to lead her first climate workshop, “which is her passion,” said her mother Teresa Safay of Ashland.

“When she lands here, I will do a big exhale. I just want my baby home,” said her mom. “This is very stressful for her.”

On Facebook, Gabriela wrote, “The ongoing global confusion is creating a lot of stress, fear and general mistrust in the world. I think it’s important right now to give yourself and those around you a little extra love and kindness, and to try to remain calm, as stress is one of the worst possible things for our immune systems. The most positive thing I can take from all of this is the massive decrease in production, consumption and pollution from our species. These are things that should have been reduced long ago.

“It blows my mind witnessing the reaction to this pandemic from our world leaders. Imagine if we responded this quickly to climate change, world hunger, poverty. Imagine how much we could accomplish. We are all vulnerable here on this Earth. Let’s use this as a chance to come together and act as a collective unit with the time we have left here.”

Canada’s borders were closing when AJ McCalla’s studies at Quest University in Squamish, British Columbia, ended Thursday, giving him a week to pack and get to the U.S. His parents drove up to fetch him and, driving back, found all restrooms shut, so they had to “hold it,” said his mom, Hilary Avalon.

“They were calm and polite in Canada,” says Avalon. “If you’re going to be stuck in another country, Canada is where you want to be stuck. But everything started to close, like wildfire accelerating.”

AJ and his fellow seniors held their own spontaneous graduation ceremony, wearing whatever graduation hats they could find and throwing them up in the air, then they packed and left, though his roommate, from Turkey, couldn’t get a flight home and was stranded in Toronto.

“I was watching the news constantly,” says AJ. “I was scared to be stuck in Canada, though they were well organized compared to here in the U.S. So on TV they were debating whether to let people from the U.S., where it’s less safe, enter Canada.

He is self-quarantining for three weeks at his parents’ Ashland home, “playing ‘Monopoly,’” says his mom, “and waiting for this fire to pass over us.”

Barritt Reynolds, far left, and Alex Webb, far right, pose for a photo on their way home in the Houston airport. Courtesy photo