Student Well-Being

SARS Fears Prompt Many Schools to Cancel Student Trips to Toronto

By Marianne D. Hurst — May 07, 2003 3 min read
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Many schools in the United States have canceled student trips to Toronto because of fears that their pupils might be exposed to the potentially fatal respiratory illness known as SARS.

“This disease is a serious risk to our students and our community,” Brian Griffith, the principal of the 400-student West Snyder High School in Beaver Springs, Pa., said of severe acute respiratory syndrome.

The school canceled a three-day senior trip to the Canadian city scheduled for late April. Instead, the students went to New York City.

The World Health Organization issued an advisory on April 23, recommending that people not travel to Toronto. But last week, the WHO lifted the advisory.

The Beaver Springs school has been sending its students to Toronto for the past three years, but Mr. Griffith said that concerns over student safety and liability issues influenced the April 21 decision.

“We felt the risk did not merit our kids’ going there,” he said.

Parent concerns have had a big impact on the decisions of many districts to cancel trips, issue safety warnings, change procedures, or even close schools, administrators say.

For instance, the 1,100-student Weathersfield district in Mineral Ridge, Ohio, shut down all three of its schools for one day on April 28 after a group of 39 students returned from a three-day trip to Canada. Parents voiced fears of an outbreak because the students had been in the Toronto area. In the 280,000-student Broward County schools in Florida, district officials canceled a trip to Toronto for 65 middle school students that was initially planned for last week. The decision to scrap the trip came after the WHO travel advisory, and the school district said it would cancel all future trips to Toronto until the city received a clean bill of health.

Also, a Broward County district employee who had returned from a spring-break trip to China stayed home for 10 days voluntarily after parents raised worries that the employee might pass along the infection. SARS symptoms include fever, sore throat and muscle aches, and it can be spread by droplets from coughing or sneezing.

“Our policy is business as usual,” said Kirk Englehardt, the Florida district’s director of community relations, who said that the district would not be pressured into placing any employees or students under quarantine without good reason.

“Our number-one goal is to keep the kids safe,” he said, “but you can’t really point the finger at someone and tell them to stay home if they’re not sick.”

Last-Minute Cancellations

Despite a recent study released by Chinese researchers that suggested SARS may be less dangerous to school-age children than it is to adults, most school officials in the United States said that they would continue to act conservatively, relying on advisories from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health departments. The CDC advised schools last month that unless students have the primary symptoms of SARS—fever, coughing, or trouble breathing—during the 10 days following exposure to someone else, they should be allowed to attend school. (“CDC Advises Schools on Dealing With SARS,” April 23, 2003.)

SARS, which began in China, has killed more than 300 people worldwide. The first cases in Canada were reported March 15. Since then, more than 140 cases have been reported in the Toronto area, and 21 of those people have died, according to the WHO.

However, the apparent ebb of the disease in Toronto, which hasn’t reported a new case in more than 20 days, prompted the WHO to lift its travel advisory last week.

Still, the action offered little consolation to students from the Lawrence Academy of Music, a special program that is part of the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music in Appleton, Wis. Twenty-eight members of the academy’s choir, who are in grades seven through nine, were not allowed to attend the Toronto International Choir Festival on April 23.

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