Manitoba students disappointed as school trips cancelled following COVID-19 arrival

By | March 13, 2020

Normally, most students would jump for joy at the announcement of an extended spring break.

But many are feeling the weight of COVID-19 containment efforts, as classes and school trips abroad are being cancelled. 

This week, Manitoba announced its first confirmed case, and three presumptive cases, of the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. 

As a result, the Manitoba government announced classes at all schools will be cancelled for one week before and one week after the upcoming spring break. That means students will be out from March 23 until April 13, in an effort to limit the spread of the virus that’s become a global pandemic.

School divisions are taking a similar tack in response to long-planned school trips that were slated to take place over spring break, but have now been cancelled.

The Brandon School Division cancelled all international student trips and out-of-country travel for staff development programs, as has the Pembina Trails School Division. The Winnipeg School Division is also suspending all travel where possible.

That includes a trip to Europe that students at Collège Churchill were looking forward to. They were supposed to depart March 27 to visit France, Switzerland, Austria and Germany. No longer.

“The poor kids — they were really, really disappointed,” said Mala Lackhan, whose daughter in Grade 9 was supposed to go on the trip.

Safety ‘No. 1 priority’

Families spent months saving up the roughly $4,200 per student. That wasn’t easy as a single parent who raised that money on her own, Lackhan said.

But the bigger-picture safety concerns are more important, she said, and her daughter grasps the gravity of the situation.

“They could be quarantined at any time in any one of those countries,” said Lackhan. “The safety of my daughter is the No. 1 priority.”

Mala Lackhan and her daughter, Alexandra Ramcharan. (Supplied by Mala Lackhan)

Though she’s breathing a sigh of relief now, Lackhan said the Winnipeg School Division dragged its feet getting involved.

Parents wanted the division to work with the booking company to ensure they could get refunds, but Lackhan said the division argued the trip was non-essential holiday travel and not officially sanctioned.

That changed following the announcement of the first three presumptive COVID-19 cases Thursday, scores of letters written and a Wednesday meeting with the division.

The division signed a letter of support to the company on the parents’ behalf, which should enable them to get reimbursed some or all of the money, said Lackhan.

Nunavut exchange cancelled

Students at a high school in the Seven Oaks School Division are also staying put on the Prairies.

Maples Collegiate has been planning for months to send a group to Pangnirtung, Nunavut, as part of its Art and Climate Change exchange. 

It was almost fully funded through the federal government and YMCA Youth Exchanges Canada Program.

It is a real shame since collectively, we have put in hundreds of hours fundraising.– Aaron Millar Usiskin

Students were going north to explore the effects of climate change through art and local land-based teachings. They were supposed to leave March 21, but have decided to postpone.

“Pangnirtung and other fly-in communities don’t have as much access to health services, and we don’t want to risk spreading the disease there,” Aaron Miller Usiskin, a Maples Collegiate math teacher who planned to go on the trip, wrote in an email.

“It is a real shame since collectively, we have put in hundreds of hours fundraising, planning for our trip, planning for when they visit here, and making connections with the group in Pangnirtung.” 

Chris Meyer, YMCA Canada senior communications manager, said the organization respects the decision to postpone and will work with the group to find alternate dates in the future.

Students already abroad

While cancelled trips are keeping some students in the province, others already studying abroad in exchange programs are facing uncertainty.

Connor Macfarlane, a Lord Selkirk Regional Comprehensive Secondary School student, is studying in Madrid, Spain. He’s been there for just over a month on a six-month exchange program run through Yes Canada, an organization that facilitates international study programs around the world.

Connor Macfarlane recently visited sites in Toledo, Spain, during his exchange trip. (Supplied by Jodie Macfarlane)

In recent weeks, Madrid has become one of the hardest-hit spots for COVID-19 outbreaks in Spain.

On Monday, Macfarlane received a note from administrators at his school saying all in-person classes were cancelled for two weeks.

But he said he isn’t shaken by COVID-19 outbreak on the ground in Spain.

“I’m not scared of it,” he said Thursday night. “I think I’d be safe if I were to catch it, but definitely I’m not happy that it’s around.”

His mother, Jodie Macfarlane, is growing concerned. 

“I’m a little nervous about it him being out there,” she said, adding Yes Canada has been keeping parents updated regularly. “I’m feeling a little bit more confident in that way, but as a mother, goodness — I want him home.”

Spain declared a state of national emergency Friday, meaning services are limited and only grocery stores, pharmacies, hospitals and police stations will remain open.

Yes Canada sent a note to parents shortly thereafter explaining it will work with parents if they want to make arrangements to fly their kids home.

For the time being, the Macfarlanes are going to wait and see what happens, said Jodie.

Passengers, wearing protective masks and gloves, wait for checking-in for their flights to the U.S. at Madrid’s Adolfo Suarez Barajas airport, Spain March 12, 2020. (Sergio Perez/Reuters)

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