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The first moment the Czech National Agency for International Education (DZS) had to deal with bigger issues related to the COVID-19 outbreak was as early as February when the epidemic hit China, but at that time, there were only a few Czech students in the affected region. The situation became much more difficult when the disease moved to Italy, the traditional popular destination for Erasmus+ students. A number of questions concerning a complicated situation for the Czech students in Italy led to a prompt need for a complex solution to the problems linked to the students’ return and the application of the force majeure principle.
It was with the spread of the Coronavirus to the Czech Republic and within Europe that measures on the national and European levels started to be put into place. All the schools in the Czech Republic were closed on 11 March. This measure was quickly followed by the announcement of the national State of Emergency due to COVID-19 on 13 March. The measures imposed by the government included a travel ban in both directions, with some exceptions (like, for example, allowing the return of Czech citizens to the country or the departure of foreign citizens from the country).
DZS was instantly in touch with the institutions participating in the Erasmus+ program and was assisting them with in solving their urgent problems occurring due to the government measures, communicated actively through social media channels and also established a special infoline for issues related to COVID-19 that was covered by three employees. To clarify the situation, DZS issued a press release already on 12 March and prepared a new website with FAQ for Erasmus+ students and grant recipients on 17 March.
On 8 April, DZS published a complex and detailed table covering all possible scenarios and following the guidelines and the principles issued by the European Commission.
According to a qualified guess, 70 percent of Erasmus+ participants have returned home. Although most participants taking part in a short-term mobility cancelled their stay and returned home, a large proportion of students participating in a long-term mobility, especially in the higher education sector, continue in their mobility through online activities, either in the host country or from home. Because the measures in the Czech Republic were imposed earlier than in many other European countries, most students had space to return home without major complications.
It was also necessary to inform all international students about the situation and the measures. Immediately after the closing of schools, DZS created a special section on the Study in the Czech Republic website with all the information and shared it widely through social media and HEIs networks.
In the area of bilateral and multilateral programmes administered by DZS (e.g. CEEPUS, AKTION, EEA Grants and Academic Information Agency), issues that have risen due to the COVID-19 pandemic are being resolved predominantly on a case-by-case basis with successful outcomes. Importantly, Erasmus+ procedures have proven inspirational in a number of cases. Among typical examples of solutions related to the pandemic crisis are: the extension of project duration, realization of project activities and scholarship selection processes on-line, easing of application requirements, return of students who were on a mobility to the Czech Republic at the time of the pandemic outbreak to their home country with the mobility remaining virtually uninterrupted, because the students continue in their study programme at the host university on-line, and shifting of mobility stays to the next semester or the next academic year which, in case of the CEEPUS Programme, includes the freemover category of stipend holders.
As for the future, DZS currently works with the scenario implying that in the next academic year, mobilities and project activities will take place as planned. The calls for proposals published at the moment on the DZS webpage and advertised in national media as well as on on-line servers, thus, correspond with that scenario. If the situation continues to be difficult, beneficiaries of the programmes in higher education prefer to implement activities in an alternative way, i.e. through blended mobilities, starting with virtual learning and implementing short-term physical mobility as soon as the situation returns to normal, or, in the worst case, shifting to virtual learning completely. The possible alternative solution will be offered in accordance with approved policies of the European Commission and the Czech Ministry of Education. Most HEIs have the means to put these alternative activities in place, with the imperative goal that these remain meaningful for participants.