Several Montreal-area schools have postponed or rerouted class trips to avoid Italy because of concerns over the coronavirus, which has reportedly sickened 400 people and killed 12 in that country.
At least 81,900 cases of coronavirus disease, or COVID-19, have been confirmed in at least 41 countries, and at least 2,770 people have died so far, according to a New York Times tally. All but 55 of those deaths occurred in mainland China. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is advising against travel to China and South Korea, advising people to “reconsider” travel to Japan, Italy and Iran, and “be careful” about travel to Hong Kong.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the Canadian government was recommending people “exercise a high degree of caution if travelling to Northern Italy, due to the spread of a novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).”
That travel advisory led Westmount High School to postpone a long-planned 11-day trip to Florence, Venice and Athens, for 51 of its students, with only 24 hours’ notice.
“It’s only a day’s warning but we feel it is the prudent action to take,” English Montreal School Board spokesperson Michael Cohen told the Montreal Gazette on Wednesday. “The plan is to have the trip take place after exams in June, by which time, hopefully, the situation will be cleared up.”
He said the decision to postpone was made jointly by school board officials and Westmount High School principal Demetra Droutsas. But some parents at the school are furious they weren’t consulted.
Anna Mittag said her son, who is in Grade 11 at the school and was signed up for the trip, can’t go in the summer because he will be working. Her understanding is that the travel agency that organized the trip is willing to give vouchers but not refunds. Her son is bitterly disappointed, she said, as he had been saving money and looking forward to the trip for years.
“We were supposed to be at the airport tomorrow at 12:30,” Mittag said. “Today, at 12:56 p.m. we got a note from the principal saying they had decided — really unilaterally, because they didn’t consult with the parents at all — to postpone the trip indefinitely. When I spoke to the principal, she was saying they hope that maybe they will do it in the summer, which my son can’t do, so I’m out $3,755.”
Mittag said she called the travel agency, EF Educational Tours, and they told her they won’t issue a refund because the school postponed but did not cancel the trip.
The school and school board required parents to purchase travel insurance that would refund up to $5,000 in the event the trip is cancelled because of a travel advisory by the Canadian government.
“There is a travel advisory but my school did not cancel it, they just postponed it,” she said.
She gets why the school might cancel the trip, to avoid liability or costs if the students were quarantined while abroad. Cancelling, and reimbursing is one thing, she said, but she doesn’t understand “this cockamamie scheme of postponing it without asking anybody and literally leaving me out of pocket.”
On Thursday, EF Educational Tours provided a statement to The Gazette, saying the company’s top priority is the health and safety of its clients and so it has been monitoring the coronavirus situation daily, and providing groups with “flexible options as needed”. The company is allowing groups who were scheduled to travel to the most significantly impacted regions of Italy through March 31 to rebook without penalty, for example.
“As an example of our commitment to safety, earlier this month we proactively started moving groups that were scheduled to travel to China, even before the Government of Canada recommended doing so. In addition, after the increase in new cases reported in northern Italy, we have decided to once again proactively reroute groups that were scheduled to travel to or near the quarantined towns and have taken the additional measure to not travel in Venice or Milan for the next month as we continue to monitor the impact…This policy allows groups to delay or change their plans (including to domestic options) or take a refund in the form of a travel voucher right up to the day of departure,” the company explained in a written statement.
A spokesperson for EF Educational Tours, Adam Bickelman, stressed that the company is not charging change fees for school tours that have to be rerouted due to concerns over the coronavirus outbreak. Asked about refunds, he said families would instead receive “a reimbursement in the form of a transferable travel voucher, which can be used with any of EF’s divisions.”
“So, for example, if the student is a graduating high school senior, he or she could travel with our young adult group (EF Ultimate Break) or the parents could travel with our adult travel group (EF Go Ahead Tours). The family could also sell the voucher to a student who may be interested in traveling on a different trip in the future.”
Meanwhile, students from Laurier Macdonald High School in St-Léonard saw their trip rerouted because of concerns over the virus. The students were expecting to travel to Italy after a few days in France, but are now heading to Switzerland instead.
Students from Royal West Academy, another EMSB school, are currently on a European trip to Portugal and Spain, countries that have not been seriously affected by the virus. Their trip itinerary is unchanged, Cohen said.
And students at the Collège de Montréal also got news Wednesday that their upcoming European trip has been modified. Seventeen students in Secondary 4 and 5, along with two teachers, were planning to leave Saturday for 10 days in Barcelona, Milan and Venice.
Collège de Montréal principal Patricia Steben said she and school board administrators were deliberating about the trip for the past few days, watching the government advisories closely.
“But even if the government is saying ‘It’s okay, you can travel (to Italy)’, the parents were still worried and us, too. So we were trying to see how we could modify the itinerary without cancelling the trip.”
She decided to take Milan out of the itinerary a few days ago, and then yesterday made the decision to avoid Italy altogether. That leaves only Barcelona, and the change will cost each traveller several hundred dollars more, but Steben said she expects the parents will be relieved.
“The worry was not really about contracting the illness, because as you know influenza kills more people around the world and when one is young and healthy there isn’t a problem,” she said. “It was more that if ever they had to be quarantined over there … that was the worry for the families … being isolated for a week or 10 days … when you’re a teenager and your parents are 6,000 kilometres away, that’s no fun.”