COVID-19 interrupts March Break travel plans for Guysborough Youth Travellers

By By Lois Ann Dort    
March 11 2020

GUYSBOROUGH – Next week sees the start of March Break and for many, COVID-19 has pulled the plug on vacation plans.

The local community group, Guysborough Youth Travellers, who have appeared on the front page of this newspaper many times, were scheduled to depart for a week in Japan over the break, but as COVID-19 spread across the globe, those plans have been disrupted. The 19 students who signed up for this epic tour, on the drawing board for two years, will now be staying home. But the Land of the Rising Sun is in these students’ futures thanks to the willingness of all involved – students, parents, the group leader, chaperones and tour operator EF Tours—to be patient and compromise.

Michael D. Wilson, a teacher at Chedabucto Education Centre / Guysborough Academy is the group leader for the Guysborough Youth Travellers. He spoke to The Journal on Monday about the wrench COVID-19 put into their plans and the steps taken to ensure that all was not lost to the concerns about the virus and its impact on international travel.

“It’s been a busy month, but we are rescheduled,” said Wilson. “Everything was tied to Canada declaring a Level 3 (travel advisory for Japan). EF is bound by whatever Health Canada says. So, when it is a Level 3, you’re done. It hasn’t been a Level 3 and that’s been the stress for parents.” Without a Level 3 designation, the tour company is not compelled to cancel the trip and return fees; anyone backing out of the trip without a Level 3 threat listed for their destination, cannot recoup the cost. In this instance, some students invested more than $4000 to join the EF tour to Japan.

Wilson worked with EF over the last few weeks, negotiating options for the Youth Travellers.

“EF offered two things because they knew that we had graduates that would be leaving. They offered to reschedule us; they gave us the option of next spring or next summer. But next spring wouldn’t work for a lot of our graduates. So, they actually came back with the last week in August to try and minimize the impact on student employment and give the chance for graduates to get to where they are heading in the fall.

“Since the insurance was tied to a Level 3, if someone couldn’t attend the August trip, they offered those students a voucher. And since they knew that our community group only runs every two years, the voucher, which is typically good for one year, they said that ours in Guysborough would be transferable to someone for two years within our school community,” said Wilson, an accommodation the company was not required to make.

“From my end they have been super helpful. If Canada had just made it Level 3, it all would have been cut and dried, cleared, and I could have told parents. But this has been waiting and not knowing,” added Wilson.

The uncertainty has caused a lot of concern for parents and trip organizers. “Parents have been stressed and the kids are disappointed, unfortunately. And we are just doing the best that we can,” said Wilson noting that when the group held their last planning meeting in December 2019, COVID-19 wasn’t on anyone’s radar.

Waiting, while difficult and stressful, was the best option, said Wilson. “The important thing for us was waiting to see if it (the travel advisory) went to a Level 3 or wait to see what EF would do. If we simply cancelled our trip, if I as the group leader said, ‘We’re done.’ The parents would all just forfeit their deposits and that would have been the end of it. We were better waiting to see if either Health Canada raised the risk or if EF offered us an alternative.”

Wilson said that over the past few weeks, everyone knew that the trip was unlikely to go ahead at this time, but they had to wait and see what happened next.

Stephanie Borden-Surrette, a parent chaperone for the trip, wrote in an electronic message to The Journal about the trip, “I believe the postponement was an appropriate decision considering we don't know the full extent of this virus. It's better to be safe.”

Adam Bickelman, a spokesman for EF Educational Tours, spoke to The Journal by phone last week. He couldn’t speak directly to the Guysborough Youth Travellers situation but said, “The most important thing for us is that everyone feels safe and supported…It’s a challenging moment for everybody. I empathize with groups that were really excited to have these experiences and at the last-minute things are changing. What we are really focused on at the moment is doing our best to try to find flexible solutions for every group.”

As of now, the trip is scheduled for August 1, 2020. All but three of the original 19 students plan to go to Japan at that time; the remaining three will take transferable travel vouchers offered by EF.

The future of COVID-19 is uncertain, but if the threat level in Japan remains the same or increases in August, the roller coaster ride will continue; and that wasn’t the kind of vacation the Youth Travellers signed up for.