Tacoma students disappointed after school trip to Madagascar called off

Tacoma Public Schools officials have canceled a planned student trip to Madagascar, in part due to the Ebola outbreak on the African continent.

The decision was announced last week to parents and students, who had planned to travel in January to Madagascar, the island country off the coast of southeast Africa.

School district attorney Shannon McMinimee, who serves as the district’s risk manager, said the most pressing concerns about the trip were the potential for civil unrest and political instability stemming from a 2009 coup in Madagascar. But she acknowledged the Ebola epidemic in West Africa was also in the back of administrators’ minds.

About two dozen students from the School of the Arts (SOTA) and Science and Math Institute (SAMI) had planned to go on the trip. It was scheduled to take place in January, during the two schools’ annual month-long, mini-term sessions.

McMinimee cited a U.S. State Department online report about the country’s crime and safety situation as her primary reason for barring student travel there. The report lists an increase in violent crime, including tourists in national forests who were attacked by bandits with AK-47s.

Students and their parents were disappointed over what they perceive as the school district’s overly cautious decision.

“They told us the trip was being canceled because of Ebola,” said SOTA junior Madeline Meek. “They said there were other reasons, but they never specified.”

SOTA parent Cameron Bennett, whose son was scheduled to make the trip, said students had put a lot of effort into the travel plans.

“The students worked hard over these past many months to raise money for the trip, have studied in preparation for (it) and had really been looking forward to what promised to be a once-in-a-lifetime educational experience for them,” Bennett said.

He said families are having trouble understanding the rationale for the decision, especially the Ebola concerns.

“Certainly Ebola is a very serious disease, but there is no evidence that the outbreak in Liberia has any connection to Madagascar,” he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists three countries in West Africa — Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia — on its highest alert level due to Ebola. The federal agency urges U.S. residents to avoid nonessential travel to those areas. It also notes a small number of Ebola cases in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, located in central Africa. No suspected cases have emerged in Madagascar.

Tacoma kids were to be involved in conservation research in Madagascar and had also planned to assist in local schools. Students were scheduled to take cultural field trips and visit national parks. A biologist from the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium was scheduled to take part in the trip.

Jon Ketler, co-director of both SOTA and SAMI, said he met with Superintendent Carla Santorno and Deputy Superintendent Joshua Garcia before last week’s parent meeting took place. He said Santorno mentioned that Ebola was a concern.

While Ketler understands the students’ disappointment, he said he also understood why Santorno felt a trip to Madagascar wasn’t a good idea right now.

“From her standpoint, if something happened, it wouldn’t have looked like the wisest decision,” Ketler said.

SOTA and SAMI aren’t the only Tacoma schools that send students abroad. Tacoma students have traveled to Europe, New Zealand and Asia over the years.

Planning for the January 2015 trips at SOTA and SAMI began last spring. Students had to write a letter of interest, then go through interviews with teachers involved in the trip. Students spent a week toward the end of last school year studying about Madagascar.

The Indian Ocean island is considered a biological wonderland — more than 80 percent of its plant and animal species, including its endangered ring-tailed lemurs, are found nowhere else on Earth.

Madeline is interested in biology and had looked forward to seeing conservation projects on Madagascar.

She said she and many other students worked over the summer on weekend fundraisers, including some in Seattle, to help raise funds for the roughly $4,500 trip. Students worked selling hotdogs at festivals and also washed cars.

“Some students worked every shift, every weekend,” she said.

Ketler said money raised could apply to another mini-term trip, if students choose to sign up. While a trip to Nepal is full, he said, there are some slots available on a January mini-term trip to Hawaii, where students will study environmental issues

Ketler also said this is not the first time a SOTA/SAMI trip has been canceled. He said a previous visit to Nepal was canceled several years ago, due to political unrest in that country.

McMinimee said last week that plans for this year’s Nepal trip had not yet reached her desk.

She said that she didn’t receive paperwork for the Madagascar trip until mid-October, and it was incomplete.

McMinimee said that, from the strict perspective of someone charged with protecting student safety, she’d prefer that no Tacoma students ever went on field trips.

“But there are times when the academic concerns outweigh my concerns about risk,” she said. “There are also times when it is impossible to tip that scale. Madagascar was one of them.”

Madeline said the entire episode hasn’t diminished her enthusiasm for international travel, and she’d love to sign up for a school trip next year.

She said she’s learned that “things happen in the world, and you can’t always control it.”