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LOCKED DOWN in ITALY: NoHum High School Students on a Spring Break Tour of Europe Contract COVID, Wind Up in a Secure Facility in Rome; Their Parents are Very

LOCKED DOWN in ITALY: NoHum High School Students on a Spring Break Tour of Europe Contract COVID, Wind Up in a Secure Facility in Rome; Their Parents are Very



Current staff of the Parco de’Medici Sheraton. Photo from and email update sent to parents by a NHUHSD administrator.

Around two dozen
children from Humboldt County are currently trapped in Italy, after a
spring break education tour of Europe went disastrously wrong last
week, after about two dozen student and several adults contracted COVID, leaving many of them institutionalized and unable to return to the United States.

About half of the
students are currently locked down in Rome, in a Sheraton Hotel that
was taken over by the government and turned into a secure COVID
facility at the beginning of the pandemic. Those students are being
kept in fairly abysmal conditions, parents say, with intermittent
access to food, medicine, fresh air or even – until recently –
the ability to visit one another.

The other half, who
tested positive for COVID earlier in the week, are in Milan, being
housed under better conditions but still trapped in the country until
they test negative.

The Outpost
has spoken to several parents of these students. The ones we talked
to are a little panicked and more than a little angry at the Northern
Humboldt Union High School District and the tour company that
organized the educational trip. Partly they’re upset about what
they’re calling the lack of COVID precautions taken by the
organizers of the tour, but they’re also incredulous that those
organizers didn’t seem to have a contingency plan in case of an
outbreak – especially overseas, especially in a country with such
still-strong lockdown requirements.

“It’s just a
whole conflagration of fuckery,” said Rae Robison, a Cal Poly
Humboldt professor with a son currently in quarantine at the
Sheraton, when she spoke with the Outpost
this morning.

The
trip – which originally included 68
students from Arcata and
Mckinleyville High Schools
enrolled in AP European
History courses, along
with several
chaperones – was planned and undertaken by EF
Educational Tours, a travel company focusing on student-abroad
experiences. It was originally planned to include several-day stops
in the United Kingdom, France and Italy. Robinson and other parents
said it was fraught nearly from the beginning.

Kids
started falling sick before the group reached Milan, parents say.
When they arrived there, several children tested positive, but the
group quickly ran out of rapid tests. Other students started feeling
ill, but did not test again until after all members of the group who
had tested positive continued on to the next stop on their schedule,
a villa outside Rome.

But
even as kids began to get sicker, that villa proved inadequate –
according to the messages sent home to parents, it lacked hot water
and food services. After a
day and night there, a group
chaperone employed by the
school district wrote a
note to parents back home, which one parent shared with the Outpost:

We are staying a second night in Villa Valente — which
can accurately be described as charming in a rustic way. The staff
has been super helpful, but we just ate our second sandwich meal of
the day because they aren’t set up for something like this.

I expect we will switch to a business class hotel — one
with room service so we can get meals – tomorrow. As soon as I know
more I will email you.

But when the bus
pulled up to that “business-class hotel” – the Sheraton Parco
de’Medici – the kids were surprised to be greeted by armed
guards. The hotel was now serving as a governmental
COVID facility, and everyone who had since tested positive for
COVID was escorted inside and placed in isolation.

In the few days
they’ve been there, they’ve been confined to their rooms and fed
institutional meals, and provided very little medical attention while
sick. There are no laundry services available. According to two
parents, there have been bedbug outbreaks in the kids’ rooms. Until
recently, they were all kept isolated from one another as well, and
only some of them had the luxury of a balcony on which to catch some
fresh air.



Meals served to the students in the Sheraton — not the height of Italian cuisine. Photos submitted by parent.

This has loosened
somewhat as of today. The students are now allowed to visit one
another during the day, according to parents, who have organized in a
group chat to figure out what to do to help their kids. A few of them
are flying to Rome right now, and at least a few more say they may
join them shortly. They plan to join the school chaperones who stuck
with the kids – at least one of which has not yet tested positive,
and is apparently frantically running around the city attempting to
secure supplies for them.

The kids may be in
for a long haul. The current rules, in Italy, prescribe a 7-day
waiting period between COVID tests. The kids who ended up in Rome are
scheduled to test again on Monday; any who continue to test positive
will apparently be stuck there for at least an additional week.


Rosemary Sherriff, a Cal Poly Humboldt
geography instructor whose daughter, a sophomore at Arcata High, is
one of the students in Rome, told the Outpost
that she’s one of the people planning to fly out if the situation
doesn’t improve quickly. She said her first priority is trying to
find a way to get the kids out of the Sheraton and into a different
facility. Like many parents of the Rome kids, Sherriff was aware that
the kids who fell ill in Milan were able to quarantine under very
different circumstances: They were allowed to stay in their regular
hotel, and are able to get fresh air and exercise during quarantine.
(Another Rome parent, Elise
Miller, told the Outpost
that it’s her understanding that the law does not require the kids
to be in government-run facilities – that they can quarantine any
place that will have them.)

Both
Miller and Sherriff said that they have been frustrated by the fact
that it seems to have fallen upon the parents, rather than the
district or the tour company, to lead efforts to improve their sick
kids’ situations. “It’s just a huge amount of frustration, and
parents are feeling like we have to do a lot of the advocating
ourselves,” Miller said.



Supplies brought to the Rome kids from a non-sick chaperone. Photo from update sent to parents by a NHUHSD administrator.

Roger
Macdonald, superintendent
of the NHUHSD, told the Outpost
today that he and his staff have been working tirelessly with the
State Department and Rep. Jared Huffman’s office to
improve the students’ living conditions, including exploring the
possibility of finding a new place for them to stay and upping the
testing frequency. He said that he understands parents’ frustration
at this time, but he wished to assure the community that the district
is doing all it can to support students and their families, and that
staff members on the ground in Milan and Rome are doing everything
they can to help students.

He
said that once everyone is home safe, the district will review the
trip to see if lessons can be learned from what went wrong and what
could have been differently. Everyone knew there was a risk of an
outbreak, he said, but after two years of hiatus, people – parents,
teachers, students – were eager to get back to the annual trip to
Europe, much as they have been eager to get back to other traditional
school activities.

“We’ve
had kids travel for ag, for sports — a lot of us have been
traveling, and we
haven’t
really run into this,” he said.
In the meanwhile, eight of the kids currently
stuck
in Milan have now
been
cleared to come home, Macdonald
added.

In
a statement sent to the Outpost
today, Terence
Burke, a spokesperson for EF
Educational Tours, wrote
that the differing laws between Italian states have made it difficult
to find other lodging for the Rome kids. He emphasized that students
and parents are required to sign a “COVID Safe Travel” agreement,
and said that the company is supporting the kids and their parents
during this time. He wrote:

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.

Meanwhile, the
county’s Public Health Division is working with the students and
chaperones who have returned from the trip, and who – if found
positive – may be carrying a COVID variant that has yet to be seen
in Humboldt County.

“Public Health is working with the group from Arcata and
McKinleyville high schools on response testing and will be sending
all positive tests to the state for genomic sequencing,” Public
Health director Sofia Pereira wrote the Outpost
this afternoon.Turnaround time for sequencing
results is typically 3-4 weeks, but because this is related to
international travel we should be able have the sequencing expedited.”

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