West Potomac's orchestra and choral students were looking forward to the trip of a lifetime. Last Friday morning, 66 of them, along with parents and orchestra director Alicia McMahan and choir director Ernest Johnson, were scheduled to board a chartered bus to New York City. Once there, they had plans to tour NBC Studios, have dinner in Little Italy, attend a Broadway show and do a Broadway workshop, then do some sightseeing.
Choral students were going to sing with the choir at a city church, and members of the orchestra hoped that a clinic with some of the string players from the New York Philharmonic would pan out. They would then all head back to Alexandria late Saturday evening.
Those hopes were dashed on March 18, when Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) canceled all field trips to Washington, D.C., and New York City, effective that day. There was no warning, and FCPS was one of the few school systems to take such drastic action.
Bob Richards, West Potomac Choir Boosters president, tried to salvage the weekend's trip by setting up a trip to take parents and students only. Because it would not be a school-sponsored trip, Johnson and McMahan would not be allowed to join them and the groups would not perform as planned. They would, however, have been able to use the Broadway tickets and do some of the other activities. Unfortunately, Richards could not secure an appropriate insurance policy, so the group had to cancel with the tour company.
Last Thursday, Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech announced a revision to the Fairfax County Public Schools’ field-trip policy. While trips to Washington, D.C., and New York City are still not permitted, it says, "Principals may request a special exemption for travel to Washington, D.C., or New York that is impossible to reschedule because of the uniqueness of the event or other extraordinary circumstances."
A DAY LATE AND A DOLLAR SHORT. Had this announcement come just one day earlier, the group would have been allowed to go on the trip, but since the announcement coincided with the time that they were originally scheduled to leave Friday morning, it was too late to regroup and put the trip back together.
A group of journalism students from Mount Vernon High School also missed out. Diane Fowler, English teacher and journalism adviser, said that she had planned to take a group of seven students to New York last Wednesday for the Columbia Scholastic Press Association Conference.
"This was a chance for students to come together with kids from all over the country and take classes that they wouldn't normally get," said Fowler.
The revised policy came too late for them, as well. "The kids were disappointed but not at all surprised. Even if the county hadn't canceled, I was having second thoughts about it," she said. "It's unfortunate, especially since another conference was canceled because of the sniper [attacks last October].”
Mount Vernon High School senior Paul Tenorio was scheduled to go on the journalism trip and said that they had started planning the beginning of the year.
"I think the county made a rash decision [to cancel trips]. This is something we can't get back. It's really disappointing."
THE DISAPPOINTMENT OF missing out on the orchestra trip was exacerbated by the realization that at first glance, none of the $350 paid by each student for the trip would be returned. The county had signed a contract with a tour operator that allowed for no refunds.
Barbara Elkins, West Potomac Orchestra Boosters president, said that the parents had not been notified that there was a no-refund clause in the contract. She is frustrated because FCPS told her that the county would neither refund the money nor negotiate on their behalf.
"Parents had no way of knowing that there was no refund," said Elkins, who was concerned because some families worked very hard to get the money for the trip. "Some students used birthday money, while others pulled from savings; we did fund-raisers and used booster money."
Elkins started e-mailing members of the School Board and FCPS officials. An e-mail from Isis Castro, chairman of the Fairfax County School Board, said, "The decision to cancel field trips to Washington, D.C., and New York City was made in order to protect our students and staff. I know how disappointed the students must be, and I truly sympathize that you are having such a difficult time getting a refund from the tour company. Unfortunately, the school system is unable to reimburse these funds to you. I hope the letter that Dr. Domenech has provided will assist you in your negotiations with the tour operator."
An initial e-mail from Domenech's office stated, "Questions about refunds for a canceled trip should be directed to the trip's organizer or to the company sponsoring the trip. To assist groups in trying to get refunds, we have attached a letter from Dr. Domenech that could be used in refund negotiations with travel agencies."
One of the West Potomac Orchestra students, Julie Smith, said, "We were all really disappointed. I was looking forward to it for the fun and the music. I thought we should get all our money back, because we worked really hard for it by doing fund-raisers."
THE LETTER FROM Domenech asked companies to "please consider refunding fees paid by FCPS students, in the spirit of caring and cooperation that has spread throughout our country during these times of tragedy and uncertainty. We hope to be able to reconsider our stand on field trips as soon as we can be more confident of our students' safety. Thank you for your efforts on behalf of our children."
Later Domenech's office said, "We appreciate that the trip cancellation was a disappointment for the West Potomac students and costly for their families. Our first consideration in making these decisions, however, must be the safety of our students and staff members. Since the days immediately after Sept. 11, we have tried to be clear with parents that all field-trip plans continue to be subject to cancellation, and the school division cannot assume any financial liability."
Richards said, "I think it's a shame that they [the county] did what they did." He did, however, receive some good news from the tour company last week when it told him that they would refund $175 to everybody, 50 percent of what was originally paid. They also sent them the Broadway tickets that had already been purchased, tickets that were good only for last Saturday's matinee.
Richards and Elkins feel that is not enough; they want the county to make up the difference. Richards would like to see the county reimburse everybody the full amount and then go after the tour company. He was led to believe that money paid for trips canceled after 9/11 were refunded by FCPS contingency funds.
"My hope is that no matter what the excuse and what the gap, the county will pay the full amount," said Richards.
Fowler said that her group had paid $200 and received all but $80 back, because those moneys had already been spent to purchase tickets and such. She is satisfied with this refund and does not expect the county to pick up the difference.
One of Fowler's students, junior Megan Donahoe, said, "I've been looking forward to it all year. Money was wasted because Columbia [Scholastic Press Association] is not giving it all back. I really wanted to see it [sites]."