Helene Kambach’s smile was infectious as she worked alongside Osawatomie Rotary Club member Mark Fuchs to assemble a wooden bed frame for the club’s community service project during simpler times in mid-August.

In mid-March, in a small conference room at Osawatomie High School, Helene’s furrowed brow told a different story.

The senior exchange student from Germany said that because of coronavirus (COVID-19), she wasn’t sure when she would be able to return home to Halle (Saale), a cultural center of about 230,000 people and the birthplace of Baroque composer George Frideric Handel.

Helene said Thursday, March 12, that Halle (Saale), about a 1 ½-hour drive from Berlin, had temporarily closed its schools to try and prevent the spread of the coronavirus that was sweeping across Germany.

“It’s the only bigger city that has done this so far, but just as a precaution for like two weeks,” Helene said.

Less than a week later, on March 17, Osawatomie USD 367 would join districts across the state in shuttering its buildings for the remainder of the spring semester under a directive from Gov. Laura Kelly as a safeguard against the spread of COVID-19.

Helene’s countryman, Connor Bach-Wall, 17, of Hainburg, Germany, a community of about 15,500 people east of Frankfurt, is a junior this year at Paola High School.

Connor said he is concerned because of the amount of cases relative to Germany’s size. It has fewer square miles than the state of Montana.

“People are a lot more concentrated there,” Connor said.

Purno Sangma, an exchange student from Bangladesh who is a senior at Louisburg High School, shares the same concern for his country.

Purno said Bangladesh has fewer square miles than Kansas but has a population of more than 160 million people. The capital city of Dhaka, with a population of about nine million people, is the ninth-largest and sixth-most-densely-populated city in the world.

Purno said social distancing would not be easy in his homeland in Southeast Asia on the Bay of Bengal, a lush country fed by many waterways.

“We have 1,000 people living in each square mile. If coronavirus spread in my country it would be a real bad situation,” Purno said. “Our current healthcare (system) is not up-to-date with other parts of the world.”

On Tuesday, March 24, Bangladesh had reported 39 cases of coronavirus, including four deaths.

Gabriel Talledo Lena, 16, is from Colindres, Spain, a town of about 8,500 people in the northern province of Cantabria. The junior at Paola High School learned Thursday, March 12, that schools were closing in his home country.

“My friends are freaking out,” Gabriel said, adding that he had already learned of multiple cases in his hometown.

Halle (Saale) also has reported multiple cases, but Helene said she is not aware of any deaths.

Helene said her school takes a ski trip to Italy every year, and students in the last group had to go into self-quarantine upon their return from Italy.

Coronavirus has hit Spain and Germany hard. As of Tuesday, March 24, Spain had reported 39,673 cases and 2,696 deaths, while Germany had recorded 31,260 cases and 132 deaths.

Both Gabriel and Connor said they aren’t worried about themselves, because they are young and healthy, but they are concerned about older friends and family members back home.

Connor was not placed through a specific exchange program. He has dual citizenship in Germany and America. He has been raised in Germany but has traveled to Texas every year. His godmother lives in Paola, and he wanted to experience school in America, so he is staying with her and attending PHS.

Purno said he would like to experience college in America, and hopes to obtain a scholarship so he can return to the U.S. as he looks to further his education.

Natalia Delgado, from the resort city of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, is a senior exchange student at Osawatomie High School. She said coronavirus has not spread to the tip of Baja California where she resides. Mexico on Tuesday had reported 367 cases, with four deaths.

Delgado said she has enjoyed her stay in Osawatomie and her time at OHS, but she is hopeful travel will not be restricted when she is set to return home in late May.

“I already have my tickets,” she said.

Gabriel and Connor said they realize they may not be able to return to their home countries as originally planned this summer. Gabriel was going to leave at the end of May and Connor was going to return in July, but they are preparing for delays.

“I’m expecting it,” Connor said. “I’m glad I really, really like it here.”

News Editor Doug Carder can be reached at (913) 294-2311 or doug.carder@miconews.com.

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