The group of 46 students and chaperones from Listowel District Secondary School that had been trying to secure a flight out of the country for the last week following the Canadian government’s call for residents travelling abroad to return home have been safely repatriated and are now in isolation.
Despite the best attempts of chaperones, Avon Maitland District School Board staff, and representatives from Explorica — the tour company that arranged the nine-day school trip to the UK — the group was unable to book enough seats on a flight out of the country prior to their originally scheduled flight home on Saturday.
After spending the first few days of their trip in Scotland following a change from the original itinerary — which would have seen the group spend the week in London — students and chaperones were moved to the London area, but not within the city itself, to ensure they were within driving distance of an airport in case they were able to secure enough seats on a flight home for everyone.
“We went to a lot of castles, which were really cool, and we did a lot of outdoor activities,” Chloe Hemingway, one of the students who was on the trip, said during a video-chat interview with the Beacon Herald and other local media outlets Sunday evening.
“We went hiking the one day and we went to the St. Andrews Beach. Our tour guide did a really good job finding stuff that we could do that we didn’t really plan to do — because we planned to do a lot of those touristy things, but instead we spent a lot of time outside.”
According to Listowel District Secondary School principal and trip chaperone Kimberley Crawford, while the group was waiting for a flight home, the chaperones and tour company were continuously changing the trip’s itinerary to ensure the group’s daily activities kept them away from heavily trafficked tourist attractions and busy metropolitan areas to reduce the chance of exposure to someone with COVID-19.
In addition, the students had been taught by public health officials how to properly wash and sanitize their hands and take other precautions prior to their departure from Toronto on March 12.
“We were always sanitizing. We had like a sanitizer jug that we put on our hands when we got on and off the bus… We weren’t allowed to hang out in our hotel rooms with more than four people, and if we were going to hang out with more than that, they had a space designated for us that was a bigger area so we weren’t hanging out in big groups in small spaces,” Hemingway said.
Though they had been told their trip was likely going to be cut short and they were well aware the COVID-19 pandemic was escalating and travel restrictions were continuing to be imposed, the students were able to enjoy their time in the UK without worrying too much about whether they would make it home.
“I was never too worried about it,” said Caden Reyes, another student who was on the trip, during Sunday’s interview. “I had trust in Canada and knew that we would get home eventually through some means… The group consensus, from what I felt anyway, was that we were all pretty firm we were going to be home at some point within the scheduled time.”
Part of the reason students felt confident they would make it home was because the trip chaperones worked around the clock to keep students and families informed of any and all changes to the trip itinerary and travel plans as they evolved.
“As a chaperone, you’re always on duty,” Crawford said during the interview. “You don’t get to, at night, rest easy because we have 41 students who we’re looking after and taking care of.
“… Obviously in this situation, we had to be that much more diligent. I think it underscored the importance of communication. As a parent, you’re going to be worried anyway if you’re child’s travelling. With the current situation, parents worried and fears were running higher… so keeping people informed every day was definitely a big (help).”
However, once news got out last week that the school group was essentially stranded in the UK, the school board, chaperones, the students and their parents found themselves on the receiving end of a significant amount of criticism from those who thought the trip never should have gone ahead in the first place.
“There are some that were supporting us and were there to help us, but a large majority seemed to be quick to judge without any real knowledge or facts. They went right at us, and it almost seemed like they were fear-mongering, which isn’t kind of the way to go about this,” Reyes said.
“It was hard for chaperones as students were reading some of the comments on social media,” Crawford added after explaining there had been no travel restrictions in place and no COVID-19 cases in Scotland when the trip was approved with the amended itinerary.
However, in looking back on their experience over the past few weeks, Crawford did say the school board would have to revisit its policy around the purchase of trip-cancellation insurance.
“Some of our families did not have cancellation insurance. When this came to our attention, my supervisor was notified that the school’s administrative procedure was not followed,” Crawford said. “It states that all families should purchase and should be made to purchase cancellation insurance. So to prevent this… from happening again, there are check points that will be put in place so it doesn’t happen for any international trips through the Avon Maitland District School Board in the future.”
But for now, the students and chaperones that were on the trip are safe at home and settling in for two weeks of isolation. Though no member of the group had reported any symptoms throughout the trip and when they arrived back in Toronto, Reyes, Hemingway and Crawford said everyone understands the need to take every precaution against the possible spread of COVID-19 now that they’re home.
For Reyes, that means spending the next 14 days playing video games, while for Hemingway, that time will be spent video-chatting with friends and painting.
Both said they would try to get at least a little homework done.