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Should I take a gap year or service year during coronavirus? Here are 5 good options

Volunteer, get an internship, take a class -- there are lots of ways to spend your time if you don't want to enroll in university right away.

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An AmeriCorps member works with the American Conservation Experience last year.

Corporation for National and Community Service
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has many universities adapting fall schedules and moving classes online -- not exactly what most students dreamt their college experience would be. Combine that with record-high unemployment rates that make paying for college more difficult and the hope of a vaccine in 2021, and it's no wonder that more students are planning to take a gap year to defer university than in years past, according to recent studies

A gap year is a year off, often between high school and college, where a young person typically travels, volunteers or works before continuing their formal education. While the gap year is most common in Europe and Australia, interest has been growing in the US -- especially in 2020, while fall campus schedules remain uncertain and money is tight for many families

There aren't any official statistics that track US students who take a gap year. The nonprofit Gap Year Association, which accredits gap year programs, estimates that before COVID, about 40,000 students took a gap year after high school graduation. This year, some have estimated that as many as 750,000 incoming college freshmen (about 30%) are actively interested in doing so. 

Since coronavirus lockdowns and quarantines began in the US in March, traffic to the Gap Year Association website has been up between 80% and 300% each day, executive director Ethan Knight told CNET. Since more schools began announcing their plans for the fall in July, increasing numbers of students have actually signed up with programs through the site, he added.

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Google searches for "service year" and "should I take a gap year coronavirus" were also up 180% and 50% one day in early July. 

While the pandemic may have taken most travel off the table and you (or your child) may not feel ready to enter the workforce, here are some other options for taking a gap year and staying healthy. 

1. Join a formal volunteer organization

AmeriCorps is a network of national service programs in the US that provide paid opportunities to address community needs, including increasing academic achievement, mentoring youth, fighting poverty, sustaining national parks, preparing for disasters and, now, fighting COVID-19. 

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An AmeriCorps member works on a COVID-19 relief project. 

Corporation for National and Community Service

AmeriCorps applications have increased since the pandemic began, as is often the case after a national disaster. That's according to Samantha Jo Warfield, a spokesperson for the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that leads US service and volunteering efforts. More than 75,000 people are currently serving through the organization nationwide. Some are working on contract tracing and other pandemic relief efforts. 

Typically, about a third of AmeriCorp applicants are high school graduates. There's also a branch called AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, which is for people aged 18 to 26. Those who participate get paid a stipend, and get scholarship money for college as well. Some opportunities are full time, while others are part time. You could potentially live at home and do AmeriCorps while also taking college classes, Warfield said. 

More AmeriCorp opportunities may become available: In June, several senators introduced the Cultivating Opportunity and Response to the Pandemic through Service (CORPS) Act, which would increase the number of AmeriCorp positions to 150,000 this year and raise stipends, in efforts to fight COVID-19.  

Other options include Service Year Alliance, a nonprofit organization that connects students with paid service work in areas including COVID-19 response, environmentalism, community development, education and healthcare. If you're politically minded, check out Election 2020 Gap Year, which connects students with ways to become volunteers or interns for political campaigns. 

2. Find a local volunteering opportunity

If you don't want to commit to one organization or are looking for something less time-consuming, every community has volunteer options that you can do while living, working or studying at home, too. Several websites can connect you to local groups, including VolunteerMatch, Idealist and All for Good

3. Find a gap year program

If you want to take a gap year abroad, you still have options, even amid the pandemic, Knight said. For example, American students can still travel to the EU for academic purposes (even with recent travel bans from high-risk countries like the US), and some programs are still accepting students from the US, so long as they quarantine when they arrive. Organizations like Sea|Mester (which provides gap year programs at sea) are also still planning to operate. But the virus has led to more interest in domestic gap year programs within the US, Knight said. 

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Students paint a mural through a gap year program in Tanzania. 

Gap Year Association

You can search for programs in the US or abroad through Gap Year Association by program duration, and any COVID-19 (including in-person only, online-only or hybrid programs). Programs vary: Some require you to move to a new location, while others are remote or in your area. Some also require you to pay to participate, while others pay you a stipend. 

Another option is Global Citizen Year, which typically places high school graduates in another country for a year to live with a local family and work as apprentices supporting projects in education, health and the environment. This year, it started up an online leadership academy for students, with a sliding tuition scale. 

4. Learn new skills from home 

If you're not enrolled in a full-time college program, you can still take courses at your local community college, or through a number of universities or organizations online. What's going to be best for you depends on a few things, including your budget, and how much structure you prefer: A self-paced fully online course with no professor is very different from an official course taken through a university with weekly lectures, assignments, deadlines and assessments. 

Find free courses through sites like Coursera, LinkedIn Learning and edX. And find paid individual classes or programs through sites like SkillShare and Udemy, or through many universities. 

You can find classes just about any subject imaginable, including how to play guitar, how to become a filmmaker, how to draw, how to code and even how to become a YouTube star.

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5. Complete a remote internship 

Lots of companies have shifted their regular internships (both paid and unpaid) online -- giving more students the opportunity to apply, even if they don't live in the same place where the company is based. 

You can search for remote internships on job search sites such as Indeed and Glassdoor, or on dedicated internship sites such as Chegg Internships and Virtual Internships.  

For more on education, check out our list of K-12 online school resources, and the best free things to check out while stuck at home.