Orange Alert Cancels School Field Trips

Orange Alert Cancels School Field Trips

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."

<b>WILLIAMS IS NOT</b> 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.

Herndon High principal Leslie said there were several trips planned that had to be shelved because of the war. "Obviously, we are all disappointed, but when you are dealing with the safety and welfare of our kids, you can't be too cautious," Leslie said.

<b>SOME STUDENTS</b> 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."

<b>HERNDON HIGH SCHOOL</b> 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."

<b>LISA LOMBARDOZZI</b>, the Herndon PTSA president who has three children affected by the policy, knows first hand what level of disappointment the students are feeling. "My kids take German and they were all set to go to American University. Oh, well," Lombardozzi said. "It's a legitimate safety concern and you've got to be safe. If even one person were to get hurt, can you imagine the lawsuits?"

Williams, the Herndon Middle School drama teacher, isn't buying it. Williams' husband was a career naval aviator and they lived in Japan during Vietnam. "I've lived in places where it was too dangerous to go outside," Williams said. "But I look at the Israelis and they go on with their daily lives. I think we are playing right into the terrorists' hands. I have confidence in our leaders to protect us."

Caught between disappointed students and a concern for safety, principals like Frank Jenkins are walking a tight line. "They had already purchased tickets for two plays," said Jenkins, the Herndon Middle principal. "The kids are understandably disappointed, but given the dangers it was an easy call. We are anxiously trying to find a solution to the problem."

Williams has called a parent meeting for the night of Monday, March 31 to try and find a solution that would allow the trip, scheduled for April 11 and 12, to continue. "I am always a complete optimist," Williams wrote in her letter informing parents of the county's decision.

Jenkins, now in his seventh year at the Locust Street school, has always watched a group head north, by chartered bus, to New York. "It's a little sad," Jenkins said. "The trip is very worthwhile."