School trips in jeopardy over swine flu

Even with Cuba’s first confirmed case of H1N1 flu, known as swine flu, health officials last week gave a local school the all clear to travel there last weekend.

Montessori by the Sea took nine students on a school trip to Cuba over the long weekend, after the Public Health Department and Cayman Airways said it was OK to travel. The deciding factor seemed to hinge on exactly where the students would be on the weekend trip compared to the confirmed swine flu case, which was reported in the Matanzas province, east of Havana.

Since the students were staying in the city of Havana, the public health nurse said the weekend trip would be safe for students. The nurse also supplied information on precautionary hygiene measures, school co-director Courtney Jackson said prior to the trip.

‘We are still keeping a vigilant eye on the situation and the public health nurse said she would keep us updated if anything changes,’ said Ms Jackson.

While the students’ parents called the school asking for updates on the Cuba trip and expressed concern about the swine flu case in Cuba, none have felt the need to pull their kids off the trip Ms Jackson noted. In fact, six parents are scheduled to participate in the trip along with three teachers and nine grade six students.

This will be the first school trip in another country for Montessori by the Sea. The school had already cancelled a school trip to Costa Rica, because of earthquakes. The earthquakes in Costa Rica were so bad the hotel the students were scheduled to stay in was completely destroyed said Ms. Jackson.

‘It is important for children to experience different cultures. It is just a matter of finding a safe place for them to take them,’ she said.

On the other hand, Cayman International School was recently forced to cancel a trip to Costa Rica amid fears over swine flu. Costa Rica had eight confirmed cases and one death from swine flu at press time.

‘We decided to cancel the trip to Costa Rica, because we considered it prudent that student travel be re-evaluated in a time of global health concerns,’ said CIS school director Jean Caskey.

If the students had gone on the trip they would have had to go through Miami airport, which would have added to the possibility of exposure.

‘We don’t want kids going off-island to return with possible exposure to [H1N1 flu]. If we err we always want to err on the side of caution,’ said Ms. Caskey.

About half of the students in grade 9 through 12 were signed up to go on the school trip to Costa Rica, originally schedule for the end of May.

It is still unclear how much parents will be refunded with travel guides and hotels booked in Costa Rica. American Airlines has reported that it will honour the airline ticket to another destination for up to a year with a $150 change fee. But there are ongoing discussions with the airline for a full refund for the cost of the ticket Ms. Caskey said.

Triple C has decided not to schedule any trips abroad in the near future. But that decision is being driven by the downturn in the economy, trying not to overburden parents with extra costs, according to Principal Anthony Husemann.

St. Ignatius reported taking a trip to Washington this year but has no other plans for school trips abroad.

Questions to the Education Department on whether any of the public schools will be taking any overseas school trips were not returned by press time.

Many schools schedule trips abroad as part of a well-rounded education. Educators say school trips can also build qualities such as stronger interpersonal skills, personal responsibility, and community service, as well as helping children get a stronger sense of history and culture. But with the rapid spread of swine flu and SARS just a few years ago, and with more pandemic virus expected in the future, overseas school trips may become increasingly difficult.

But with international travellers coming to and from the Cayman Islands on daily basis, staying on-island does not guarantee protection from pandemic flu, added Mr. Husemann.