Photo by Penni Gladstone for CalMatters
A rapid antigen COVID-19 test is used on patients at Canal Alliance’s test site in San Rafael.
A Northern Humboldt Unified High School District trip to Europe has been derailed by COVID-19 outbreaks, leaving some students in locked quarantine facilities overseas and parents scrambling for information amid rising frustrations.
“It’s a fucking nightmare,” said Rae Robison, whose son, an Arcata High School student, is on the trip and is currently being held in a hotel that’s been converted into an Italian government-run quarantine center in Rome.
According to Robison and other parents, the trip, planned by the educational travel company EF Tours, included 68 students from multiple schools’ AP Europe classes and about 10 chaperones, and set out during the schools' springs breaks. The group landed around 11 a.m. on April 12 in London, where it spent three days, before moving on to three days in France and then Italy.
According to parents’ Facebook posts and interviews with the Journal
, some students quickly began experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.
“Immediately upon arrival in London, kids were sick — runny noses, sore throats — and a chaperone was coughing,” said Angelina Torres, whose 17-year-old daughter, a student of Arcata High School, is on the trip. She added that as students increasingly became symptomatic in the ensuing days, some expressed concerns but were told they were likely just struggling with jet lag and adjusting to a new climate.
By the time the group was leaving France, Torres said students were asking for COVID-19 tests.
“Kids were demanding to get tested because they were hella sick,” she said.
Northern Humboldt Unified School District Superintendent Roger Macdonald said the district sent two or three rapid COVID-19 tests per student for the trip, which the district thought was “probably enough” but, in retrospect, may not have been. That said, Macdonald said he’s “not aware of anyone asking for a test and not getting a test.”
At the first stop in Italy — Milan — students and chaperones were offered COVID-19 tests, though Torres said no one — including people experiencing symptoms — was forced to take them. Robison said about 10 students and two chaperones tested positive, including her son’s roommate. Those who tested negative or did not test — including close contacts of those who tested positive, like Robison’s son — were not required to quarantine and continued traveling.
Torres said she believes COVID-19 protocols — like EF Tours’ pledges to keep students masked while in transit — were not adhered to.
“None of the protocols they told us would be in place when we sent our kids on this trip have really been followed,” Robison said.
While Robison’s son initially tested negative, she said he began feeling symptomatic the following day and asked to be tested again, but was told no additional tests were available. The decision was made — it’s unclear whether by local staff acting as chaperones or EF Tours — to leave the COVID-positive students in Milan with chaperones while the rest of the group continued on to Rome. Once there, Robison said another 10 to 12 students tested positive, including her son. Those who tested negative — including close contacts — were allowed to resume travel plans and visited the Vatican before boarding flights home.
The group of students and chaperones who tested positive, however, were not allowed to stay at the hotel EF Tours had booked them and instead were transferred to the government facility. A chaperone who emailed parents described the group being greeted by military police and their jeep, prompting them to realize “this was not going to be the quarantine we expected.” According to the chaperone, protocols at the facility are strict and students are are not allowed to leave their rooms.
Torres said she worries about her daughter’s mental health in isolation.
“The first two days, she just cried nonstop, saying, ‘Mom, I want to come home. I want to come home,’” Torres said, adding that on one call, she heard a “boy screaming in the background, ‘Let me out, let me out.’” She said, “It’s their mental and emotional health I’m worried about. It’s so traumatic. Our kids are going to need some counseling from this.”
The district has made school counselors available to the students via video conferencing, according to Superintendent Roger Macdonald.
The group in Rome will be there at least until April 26, at which point they will be re-tested. Those who test negative will be released, while those who test positive will be held at the facility longer, though how much longer is unclear.
Parents said they hope the students will then be tested daily and released as soon as they test negative, but some fear they will have to wait another week to be tested again. The district and the parents have been in touch with North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman’s office, which has engaged the Italian government on the matter.
In Milan, meanwhile, all the students and the chaperone who had tested COVID-positive tested negative this morning, except for two. Those who tested negative are having arrangements made to travel home, while the two students still testing positive will remain there with a parent and re-test daily.
While Macdonald said the district has worked hard to keep parents informed — with chaperones sending daily updates and the district now sending regular briefings to families — some parents said it’s been difficult and frustrating trying to get information about their students and future plans.
“We don’t know what’s going on,” Robison said, explaining it’s been hard to get information from her son’s school, the district, EF Tours or anyone else, adding that parents of three infected students became so frustrated and concerned they flew to Italy themselves.
Macdonald said the district’s focus right now is on getting everyone home healthy and safe, and making them as comfortable as possible in the interim, but said the district will do a full review to determine what more could have been done to keep kids safe on the trip. He added, though, that he believes the travel team followed all local COVID-19 protocols at all times and the district required all students going to be fully vaccinated.
“But obviously, looking back, kids got sick, so we’re going to ask what more we could have done,” he said.
EF Tours spokesperson Terence Burke said the company is working to help students and their families, sending an additional tour director to provide additional support and offering to fly students’ parents to Rome to be there with their children.
Meanwhile, some parents feel things just keep getting worse, as Torres said her daughter and two other students woke up this morning with little red bedbug bites all over. She said the center’s response was to move them to another room, saying their belongings would be washed and returned tomorrow.
Elisa Miller, whose daughter attends Arcata High School and turned 16 on the trip, said she’s been frustrated at times by the flow of information and what seem to be contradictory protocols that allowed close contacts to positive cases to continue traveling only to later implement an incredibly strict lockdown of positive cases in Rome. She feels EF Tours should have had a better handle on local COVID protocols. But she said she was largely doing OK until news came of the bedbugs.
“In some ways, the students are being held,” she said. “They’re forced to eat whatever food they’re given. And now they’re asked to stay somewhere that has bedbugs? I have a problem with that.”
Torres said she hopes the local community will help in advocating for the students’ safe and prompt return home, urging residents to call Huffman’s office (407-3585) and Macdonald (839-6481), and to contact the U.S. Embassy in Rome (www.it.usembassy.gov, +39-06-46741).
"I'm really hoping the community is going to rally together for our kids," she said.
See the full statement from EF Tours copied below.
Statement of EF Educational Tours
The safety of the students and teachers who travel with us is always our top priority as is their comfort. We can confirm that a tour group from Arcata High School is quarantining in Rome, Italy after several travelers tested positive for COVID-19. We are doing everything we can to support the group as they complete their quarantine in adherence with local guidelines, including investigating concerns related to the government-run quarantine hotel in which the group is isolating.
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.