Around two dozen
children from Humboldt County are currently trapped in Italy, after a
spring break education tour of Europe went disastrously wrong last
week, after about two dozen student and several adults contracted COVID, leaving many of them institutionalized and unable to return to the United States.
About half of the
students are currently locked down in Rome, in a Sheraton Hotel that
was taken over by the government and turned into a secure COVID
facility at the beginning of the pandemic. Those students are being
kept in fairly abysmal conditions, parents say, with intermittent
access to food, medicine, fresh air or even – until recently –
the ability to visit one another.
The other half, who tested positive for COVID earlier in the week, are in Milan, being housed under better conditions but still trapped in the country until they test negative.
The Outpost has spoken to several parents of these students. The ones we talked to are a little panicked and more than a little angry at the Northern Humboldt Union High School District and the tour company that organized the educational trip. Partly they’re upset about what they’re calling the lack of COVID precautions taken by the organizers of the tour, but they’re also incredulous that those organizers didn’t seem to have a contingency plan in case of an outbreak – especially overseas, especially in a country with such still-strong lockdown requirements.
“It’s just a whole conflagration of fuckery,” said Rae Robison, a Cal Poly Humboldt professor with a son currently in quarantine at the Sheraton, when she spoke with the Outpost this morning.
The trip – which originally included 68 students from Arcata and Mckinleyville High Schools enrolled in AP European History courses, along with several chaperones – was planned and undertaken by EF Educational Tours, a travel company focusing on student-abroad experiences. It was originally planned to include several-day stops in the United Kingdom, France and Italy. Robinson and other parents said it was fraught nearly from the beginning.
Kids started falling sick before the group reached Milan, parents say. When they arrived there, several children tested positive, but the group quickly ran out of rapid tests. Other students started feeling ill, but did not test again until after all members of the group who had tested positive continued on to the next stop on their schedule, a villa outside Rome.
But even as kids began to get sicker, that villa proved inadequate – according to the messages sent home to parents, it lacked hot water and food services. After a day and night there, a group chaperone employed by the school district wrote a note to parents back home, which one parent shared with the Outpost:
We are staying a second night in Villa Valente — which can accurately be described as charming in a rustic way. The staff has been super helpful, but we just ate our second sandwich meal of the day because they aren’t set up for something like this.
I expect we will switch to a business class hotel — one with room service so we can get meals – tomorrow. As soon as I know more I will email you.
But when the bus pulled up to that “business-class hotel” – the Sheraton Parco de’Medici – the kids were surprised to be greeted by armed guards. The hotel was now serving as a governmental COVID facility, and everyone who had since tested positive for COVID was escorted inside and placed in isolation.
In the few days they’ve been there, they’ve been confined to their rooms and fed institutional meals, and provided very little medical attention while sick. There are no laundry services available. According to two parents, there have been bedbug outbreaks in the kids’ rooms. Until recently, they were all kept isolated from one another as well, and only some of them had the luxury of a balcony on which to catch some fresh air.
This has loosened
somewhat as of today. The students are now allowed to visit one
another during the day, according to parents, who have organized in a
group chat to figure out what to do to help their kids. A few of them
are flying to Rome right now, and at least a few more say they may
join them shortly. They plan to join the school chaperones who stuck
with the kids – at least one of which has not yet tested positive,
and is apparently frantically running around the city attempting to
secure supplies for them.
The kids may be in for a long haul. The current rules, in Italy, prescribe a 7-day waiting period between COVID tests. The kids who ended up in Rome are scheduled to test again on Monday; any who continue to test positive will apparently be stuck there for at least an additional week.
Rosemary Sherriff, a Cal Poly Humboldt geography instructor whose daughter, a sophomore at Arcata High, is one of the students in Rome, told the Outpost that she’s one of the people planning to fly out if the situation doesn’t improve quickly. She said her first priority is trying to find a way to get the kids out of the Sheraton and into a different facility. Like many parents of the Rome kids, Sherriff was aware that the kids who fell ill in Milan were able to quarantine under very different circumstances: They were allowed to stay in their regular hotel, and are able to get fresh air and exercise during quarantine. (Another Rome parent, Elise Miller, told the Outpost that it’s her understanding that the law does not require the kids to be in government-run facilities – that they can quarantine any place that will have them.)
Both Miller and Sherriff said that they have been frustrated by the fact that it seems to have fallen upon the parents, rather than the district or the tour company, to lead efforts to improve their sick kids’ situations. “It’s just a huge amount of frustration, and parents are feeling like we have to do a lot of the advocating ourselves,” Miller said.
Roger Macdonald, superintendent of the NHUHSD, told the Outpost today that he and his staff have been working tirelessly with the State Department and Rep. Jared Huffman’s office to improve the students’ living conditions, including exploring the possibility of finding a new place for them to stay and upping the testing frequency. He said that he understands parents’ frustration at this time, but he wished to assure the community that the district is doing all it can to support students and their families, and that staff members on the ground in Milan and Rome are doing everything they can to help students.
He said that once everyone is home safe, the district will review the trip to see if lessons can be learned from what went wrong and what could have been differently. Everyone knew there was a risk of an outbreak, he said, but after two years of hiatus, people – parents, teachers, students – were eager to get back to the annual trip to Europe, much as they have been eager to get back to other traditional school activities.
“We’ve had kids travel for ag, for sports — a lot of us have been traveling, and we haven’t really run into this,” he said. In the meanwhile, eight of the kids currently stuck in Milan have now been cleared to come home, Macdonald added.
In a statement sent to the Outpost today, Terence Burke, a spokesperson for EF Educational Tours, wrote that the differing laws between Italian states have made it difficult to find other lodging for the Rome kids. He emphasized that students and parents are required to sign a “COVID Safe Travel” agreement, and said that the company is supporting the kids and their parents during this time. He wrote:
We have sent an additional EF Tour Director to support the group’s chaperones, who did not test positive; and we have offered to fly the students’ parents to Rome to be with the group. One parent is now on-site providing additional support and a second is on the way.
We have not been able to secure approval from the Italian government to inspect the lodging conditions; however, our Tour Directors did arrange for the group’s relocation to new rooms within the quarantine hotel. The Tour Directors are also supporting the chaperones to ensure the group has additional food and that their needs are being met. Despite Italian COVID regulations limiting the group’s transfer to a new hotel, we are continuing to work with officials in Italy to see if a transfer is feasible.
Our EF COVID Care Promise program provides comprehensive support for every travel group in the event they experience a pandemic-related travel disruption. The program provides lodging and meals, in-person representation and coordination with local authorities, translation services, flight rebooking, and the facilitation of communication between the group and their families and school back home, if necessary – all at no additional expense to the traveler and throughout the extended duration of the trip.
Meanwhile, the county’s Public Health Division is working with the students and chaperones who have returned from the trip, and who – if found positive – may be carrying a COVID variant that has yet to be seen in Humboldt County.
“Public Health is working with the group from Arcata and McKinleyville high schools on response testing and will be sending all positive tests to the state for genomic sequencing,” Public Health director Sofia Pereira wrote the Outpost this afternoon. “Turnaround time for sequencing results is typically 3-4 weeks, but because this is related to international travel we should be able have the sequencing expedited.”