Two students, chaperone speak about their experiences via video link from self-isolation
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
LISTOWEL – The Listowel District Secondary School students who left for a European school trip on March 12 returned home on March 20. Two of the students, Chloe Hemingway and Caden Reyes, and one of the chaperones, LDSS principal Kim Crawford, answered questions from local media, including the Listowel Banner, via video conference, from the comfort of their own homes where they are spending their 14 days in isolation.
The decision of whether to go on the trip was constantly being reviewed before they left. They changed the itinerary and there were not travel advisories for the UK at the time they departed.
The message from the Ontario government at the time was that they probably wouldn’t have to self-isolate when they came home. The decision to close the schools hadn’t been announced until after they departed, so in that moment in time they thought it was still safe.
“Actually things changed very quickly after that, but the decision was made with that information at that time,” said Crawford.
Reyes said they heard about the Prime Minister’s announcement that Canadians should return home about two days into the trip.
“I was with my group of friends,” he said. “The only way it really changed our attitude was just to take in everything we could, never take anything for granted and you are never going to want to do anything you’ll regret after.”
Hemingway said the chaperones waited until the group was all on the bus and then they announced they were going to try to get an earlier flight home.
“For me and my friends, we were taking in all we could and enjoying what time we had because we had no idea how long we were going to be there,” she said.
Most of their time was spent doing outdoor activities and they were limited to no more than four students in a hotel room. If they were going to hang out with more than four friends at the hotel, they had a space designated for them.
“That was a bigger area so we weren’t hanging out in big groups in small spaces,” said Hemingway. “We went to a couple of castles which were really cool. We went hiking one day and we went to St. Andrew’s Beach. Our tour guide did a really good job of finding stuff for us to do that we really didn’t plan to do because we had planned a lot of those main touristy things.”
Reyes said they were lucky as the weather was amazing for outdoor activities and he was told that was unusual for the UK.
They were a little disappointed that they were not able to see some of the big tourist destinations like the Loch Ness monster exhibit, but Crawford explained that the new itinerary was dictated by proximity to an airport in case they were called back because a new flight was found.
To keep from getting ill, Hemingway said they were advised to wash their hands often. The school had medical professionals come in to show students how to properly wash their hands before they left for the trip.
“We were always sanitizing,” she said. “We had a hand sanitizer jug that we put on our hands every time we’d get on or off the bus.”
Reyes said he wasn’t too worried they wouldn’t get home.
“I had trust in Canada and the government that we would get home eventually through some means,” he said. “We had the original flight booked as planned. The group consensus from what I felt anyway was that we were all pretty firm we were going to be home at some point in the scheduled time.”
Hemingway had trust in the teachers and the travel company, Explorica, that they would find a way to get them home.
“But obviously, there was that fear in the back of my mind – what if the borders get closed?” she said.
They did not feel there was anything more that could be done to keep them safe.
“They did a great job preparing us for anything we did run into,” said Reyes.
Hemingway agreed that plans had been made to keep them safe with the information which had been available at the time.
“We were all safe, sanitized and clean and they were always looking in on us to make sure we were feeling okay,” she said.
On the way home, the airport in Scotland seemed normal but not too busy, although Reyes admitted he didn’t know how busy it would typically be there.
“Toronto was pretty empty, as you would expect but there was a lot of screening,” said Reyes. “You had to go to some tills and answer a few questions and then at customs we were asked a few questions as well.”
Hemingway compared how busy the airport in Toronto was when they came back to how busy it was when she took a trip to Thunder Bay earlier March to visit a school. She said it was much busier when she flew at the beginning of March.
“It was pretty much empty … when we got back we had to answer some questions about how we were all feeling,” she said.
“As chaperone you are always on duty,” said Crawford. “We had 41 students we were looking after and taking care of. Parents put their trust in us which is actually quite humbling. Obviously in this situation you had to be that much more diligent.”
Crawford said that as a parent you are going to be worried anytime your child is travelling overseas, but with the current situation, parents’ worries and fears were running higher so they sent a newsletter home at the beginning of each day. The situation was changing everyday so keeping people informed was a priority.
Hemingway said a lot of her friends and her parents were texting her if she was okay and preparing things for he when she got home and had to isolate herself.
“Some of my family and friends were like – if you need anything dropped off don’t worry, we’re going to do it,” she said. “So personally from my friends and family I felt a lot of support.”
From the community she didn’t feel as if there was as much support because comments on social media indicated a lot of people were skeptical of the decision to go on the trip.
“Obviously I can understand that but they were very quick to judge and I felt I didn’t really want to come back to a community that was saying some of the things they were saying and wishing poor things upon us,” she said.
“My friends and family were constantly checking in … and they were very supportive of us returning and then me being in isolation,” said Reyes.
As for the community, Reyes felt there were some people supporting them who were there to help them, but he said a large majority seemed to be quick to judge without any real knowledge or facts.
“They were right at us and they all seemed like they were fearmongering which isn’t the way to go about this, in my opinion,” he said. “Of course, I’m not in their position so I can’t say for sure how I would react but I think they could have gone about it in a different way.”
Crawford said it was hard to chaperone when the students were reading some of the comments on social media.
“Also, I mean they are reading what’s just in the media and watching the news,” she said. “The support that was coming from parents or the students themselves to one another … that was really important. That lifted everybody.”
She said they do understand the worries the community members have and the chaperones had numerous conversations with the students about people’s concerns.
“I believe the students understand all of this is coming through fear and they can understand why that fear exists,” said Crawford. “That’s why we paid so much attention to all the rules of self-isolation.”
The school made sure everyone had medical insurance before leaving. Crawford said some of the families did not purchase cancellation insurance.
“When this came to our attention my supervisor was notified that the school board’s administrative procedure was not followed,” she said. “It states that all of the families should be made to purchase cancellation insurance.”
To make sure this doesn’t happen again they have made additional check points for any future trips through Avon Maitland District School Board.
Crawford said the decision to move forward with the trip was not influenced by lack of cancellation insurance.
“The decision to move forward with the trip came because we were able to work with the company that had successfully changed the itinerary to keep us out of London and the London area,” she said.
The school board learned through this process that even those people with cancellation insurance would not have been reimbursed because there were no travel advisories at the time of departure.
Crawford said she understands the worry of people in the community.
“Of course, we’re worried and we’ve been worried about our students since we were woken up with the call that it was time to come home,” she said. “We realized how quickly things were changing but we do want to assure the community that we are going to follow those public health recommendations and self-isolate for 14 days. Our families are also going to follow the recommendations to stay separated from us during that time … we’ve done a lot of communication and I feel confident our students understand how important it is.”
Reyes said he will spend his 14 days in isolation playing a lot of video games, doing a lot of reading and maybe doing some homework if he gets any but he said they would have to see how that goes.
“I’m a very social person,” said Hemingway. “So, I’m probably going to do a lot of video calls … a bunch of people who went on the trip, we’re all planning to call each other.”
She also said she would keep busy by doing homework and probably doing some painting, but she would stay away from all her family members.