Most homestay programs in North America are hosting relatively few students during the pandemic. This raises two questions: How to retain existing hosts who don't currently have a student? And how to recruit new hosts to be ready when students eventually return?
Several homestay coordinators have reported that some long-time hosts have used this challenging period to "retire" from hosting. They may have downsized their home or be using the space for their own college-age children or have health issues that make them reluctant to host.
Karen Luther, Accommodation Coordinator at the Language Centre at St. Mary's University in Halifax, is actively reaching out to retain existing hosts. Some of her actions include:
- Sending email newsletters on a regular basis
- Conducting the required home revisits (every two years) virtually by phone
- Inviting hosts to call her work cell phone if they just want to chat
In addition, the program is encouraging hosts to remain by increasing the hosting fee from $1,700 to $1,800 for an eight-week session. "The homestay rate change is definitely keeping them interested," she says.
Luther has started accepting applications for new hosts, but until social restrictions are lifted she is not able to complete the initial "house inspection" of the recruitment process. However, once the pandemic ends, she plans to continue doing revisits virtually - noting that the time savings from driving to each home are dramatic.
Perry Gibson, Associate Director of Housing and Residence Life at Edmonds College in Washington State, says that retention is a challenge. The school currently has about 90 students in homestay - compared to the usual 350. "Even with so many homestays empty, I really had to search hard to find spaces for two students who needed to move recently," he says.
Edmonds has 120 Japanese students set to arrive next spring assuming that the pandemic has eased. "I need to set up those homestays by the end of 2020 and finding enough hosts, during COVID, may not be easy," Gibson says.
Karlee Heath of Whatcom Community College in Washington says she has not done any recruiting of hosts for future homestays. "If existing hosts saw that we are recruiting, they would be really confused about why we are looking for hosts when there are no new students."