Two foreign exchange students attending Midlothian High School — one from Italy, and one from Spain — are caught between two raging coronavirus pandemics. One outbreak appears to be finally cresting across Europe, while experts hope the one here will peak soon.
Chiara Asero is from Italy, and Lola Matamoro Gomez de los Infantes is from Spain. Both are juniors who were attending MHS until March 6, when spring break first began but was then extended as pandemic fears started to spread. Now, of course, classes are suspended indefinitely and MISD is utilizing at-home learning via internet for all of its students.
Since January, the two have been living the COVID-19 pandemic through their families back home, and now they are experiencing it firsthand in the United States.
“Everybody‘s in quarantine and staying at home,” Lola said. “I want to go outside with my friends but I can’t see anybody, so it’s a little bit sad. But I didn’t want to go home. I’d prefer to stay here.”
Both Lola and Chiara have chosen to remain in the States as long as possible, but eventually both will have to return home to complete their high school studies.
The MISD's foreign exchange program provides students from other countries the opportunity to learn about the history of the United States, the working of its government, and to become more fluent in both the written and spoken English language. Students are encouraged to take an active part in the academic process and to experience the social culture of youth at MISD.
Lola’s host mom, Rachel Bryant, said Lola has adjusted well to the new order of at-home learning and is staying positive.
“She’s mature beyond her years, and so when this whole thing started, she’d already been in communication with her parents and they’ve been on quarantine,” Bryant said. “She kind of knew what to expect. She’s holding out hope that school will start again and she’ll get to finish up with some experiences like prom … But she knows there’s a good possibility that she might not.”
Lola arrived in Midlothian in September and as it turned out, the day she was going to enroll was Sept. 6, the day of a school-wide lockdown.
At MHS, Lola played tennis and also played violin with the school concert band, performing the feature part in the song “Let It Go” from ”Frozen” during the band’s Christmas concert.
Bryant said Lola is in contact with her parents daily. She has a flight back to Spain on June 2, and will complete her senior year back home before moving on to university, where she plans to study marine biology. Lola’s hometown in Spain, Vigo, is right on the Atlantic Ocean and she also loves to surf, Bryant said.
Meanwhile, Chiara was a second-semester arrival, which is unusual among exchange programs. Chiara’s host family mom is Andrea Walton, who said the American experience was almost as important as the school experience. Walton said Chiara had wanted to come to America since fifth grade and this was the culmination of her dream.
To be 17 and knowing what Chiara wanted to do, Walton said, was admirable.
“When she first got here in January, every week we’d say ‘OK, what did you learn this week?’ ” Walton said. “Whether it was out in the community or a school experience, we wanted her to have new experiences to put on Facebook to communicate with her family.”
Before the pandemic took hold, Walton said the family was able to tour Austin on Segways. Chiara is from the island of Sicily and a densely populated urban environment, which is contrary to the countryside experience available in Midlothian or even the open-by-comparison urban setting of downtown Austin, Walton said.
But soon thereafter, the pandemic took hold with a vengeance in Chiara’s home country. Even though the brunt of the pandemic was hitting the northern portion of Italy, the entire country was placed on lockdown on March 9. A few of those restrictions were finally eased on Tuesday.
“I think perhaps for my family and for her, this feels like a longer duration than it has been,” Walton said. “We were experiencing this in January and it became very intense for her family in February. They still have to have certificates for them to leave the house; that’s much more relaxed in America.”
Chiara’s parents sent her for Easter a set of very large chocolate eggs, an Italian tradition, which, is broken open on Easter Sunday with a positive message inside, Walton said.
A number of other MISD exchange students left the country in March. But Chiara and Lola remain, realizing that the situation was bad in their home countries but growing worse here, too. Walton said she believed only three exchange students remain out of about 10 total, including Chiara and Lola.
“The organizations said they need to go home because we don’t know what we were doing and we don’t know if we could provide health care,” Walton said. “So we were very fortunate to talk to local doctors and hospitals and local officials that helped us feel comfortable and then convey that to her parents.”