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Code Orange = Field Trips Canceled

Hundreds of local students miss out on extra-curricular opportunities in Washington and New York.

The itinerary was set. The check, all $6,000 of it, was sent. With tickets to Broadway hits "Aida" and "Stomp," dinner at Planet Hollywood, a tour of the Met, a trip to F.A.O. Schwartz and an afternoon in Central Park, it was going to be a Big Apple weekend to remember for Barbara Williams and 37 of her Herndon Middle School drama students with two chaperones. That is, until last week when Fairfax County Public Schools abruptly canceled all scheduled field trips to Washington and New York. The $150 per person down payment is gone.

Locked in during the sniper attacks last fall, left homebound for 10 snow days this winter, hundreds of local students are now being left out in the cold this spring after Fairfax County canceled all field trips to Washington, New York and all foreign countries after the start of war in Iraq.

Williams, who has led a similar trip for the last 10 years, is left wondering what to do with $6,000 in non-refundable Broadway show tickets. "It's maddening, absolutely maddening," Williams said. "I am just hurting for those kids, some of whom are special needs kids, they have been looking forward to this for so long. I know of one girl who has been saving money since the beginning of school."

Last week, Williams was set to take 180 of her 7th grade drama students, along with 16 parent chaperones, to the Kennedy Center. Normally, the annual trip would be about half that size, but the first semester trip was called off on account of the sniper. Then, last week, on the day before the buses were to roll into Washington, Williams was told that the Kennedy Center was off limits, too. "The kids were so disappointed."

WILLIAMS IS NOT the only one scrambling to reschedule travel plans. Less than a week before he was to accompany his students to Toronto for a music festival, Ron Dillard, the Herndon High School orchestra director, was told he would not have to pack his bags after all. The trip was canceled.

"We are all very, very disappointed and upset about having our trip canceled," Dillard said. "We are currently looking into seeing if there is another festival in the states that we can do. But at this point, I think it is too late for us to get registered, hotels and all that stuff."

Saying large groups of students traveling together represented highly visible soft targets, the county decided to cancel all trips after homeland security secretary Tom Ridge raised the national threat level to code orange, or high, on March 17, on the first day of hostilities in Iraq. The field trip ban, according to the county, will remain in effect until further notice. Field trips to other locations were left to the discretion of the each individual principal, the release announcing the policy said.

DILLARD'S STUDENTS were not the only ones whose trips abroad had been canceled or postponed due to the war with Iraq and the threat of terrorism against Americans overseas. Earlier this month, Maria Harris, the drama teacher at South Lakes, had to inform her students that their much-anticipated trip to Beijing had been postponed. Harris' students were to be part of the ACT (Art, Culture, Theater) festival in June and July 2003. The trip has been rescheduled for next summer and Harris said all of her seniors were going to be allowed to attend and perform. "Given the world situation today," Harris said recently, "we understand the county's decision. In fact, many of the parents are kind of relieved."

Some students were luckier than others.

About 40 seniors at Herndon High, all government students in Doug Graney's political science class, did not have their spring semester internships on Capitol Hill cut short despite the county's no-Washington policy. "If the students and their parents feel comfortable, they are free to continue their internships on the Hill," said Graney. "Only about five or six have expressed concern about returning."

HERNDON HIGH SCHOOL had several trips planned for March and April, trips that have just recently been canceled, principal Jan Leslie said.

In many cases, teachers, parents, administrators and students are finding it hard to get their money back, especially at such a late date, said Leslie.

"These trips were not paid for by the school, and they were not school insured," Leslie said. "Whether or not they can get their money back remains to be seen. It doesn't look great."

To address this complaint, the superintendent penned a letter, dated March 20. The letter asked travel-related companies who would otherwise deny refunds to allow, under the circumstances, groups to recoup their investments.

"Thousands of dollars have been paid for trips that cannot, in good conscience, be made until there is some resolution for the current world tension," Domenech wrote, adding that the public school could not afford to reimburse the lost funds. "We must place the safety and security of our students and staff above all other consideration — no matter what the cost."

Leslie agreed. "We can't want safety on the one hand and have thousands of kids running around New York or D.C. on the other hand," the principal said. "Let's face it, we are dealing with the unknown."

LIKE THE STUDENTS from Herndon Middle and Herndon High, more than 40 orchestra and choir students at South Lakes lost out on their long-ago planned and paid for trip to New York because of the war with Iraq and the elevated alert levels at home. "The choir and orchestra were planning on going to New York [this] week," said principal Rely Rodriguez. "They already had tickets to 42nd Street purchased and that $60 is non refundable," she said.

With so much money paid upfront, Rodriguez acknowledged the superintendent's "difficult decision." A lot of the money was raised by the children, many of whom receive free or reduced lunches and who live in subsidized housing, she said, a point she made clear in a letter to the bus company which was to drive her orchestral and choir units to Canada. "It wasn't easy for these kids," Rodriguez said. "But still, I think it was the right decision. We are here to protect our children and we don't want to put them in harm's way."

Bruce Carter, the orchestra director, said he was disappointed, but not surprised at the county's action. "We were going to a Broadway show, the typical New York sites and now we aren't," Carter said. "We compete with other orchestras from around the country when we are there. We get adjudicated. We have a professional director and clinic the group."

Carter said his students paid for their own trip, adding that they are currently working with vendors to receive refunds. "We are looking at a lot of options right now, including a trip later this year or in the fall," Carter said. "The parents have been very supportive, they understand that things like this can happen."

Carter's colleague, Amy Moir, the South Lake's choir director, and her choir students were also supposed to travel to New York this summer until the county stepped in around the county. "I understand where they are coming from," said Moir, in her first year at the school. "We were so close to going, so, sure, it's frustrating for the students."

It's frustrating for the teachers, as well. But how does Carter feel about the county's decision? "It doesn't matter what I think," he said.