Study abroad on hold, but Plymouth schools still thinking globally | #vacation | #seniors | #elderly
PLYMOUTH – In a normal year, Alex Cardoso would be leading a group of excited kids on the trip of a lifetime this week.
The Plymouth North High School math teacher has led student trips to Costa Rica, Iceland, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands in recent years and, this week, he should be in Peru for a week-long adventure capped by a visit to Machu Picchu.
That train trip through the Sacred Valley to the fabled Lost City of the Inca went the way of last year’s scrubbed trip to Belize, however, for Cardoso and dozens of students.
The pandemic put a halt to all local student travel last March, abruptly cancelling plans for trips to Costa Rica, France, Spain, Belize, Italy and the Dominican Republic.
A later trip to the Dominican and an exchange trip to England in celebration of the town’s 400th anniversary were postponed as well.
Cardoso still hopes to lead student adventures to Belize, Peru and even Brazil someday, but when that might be is still uncertain. Some fear international travel may never recover from the damage done by the pandemic. It has certainly put programs to the test, but local schools are staying invested in their overseas relationships just the same.
Championing a global community
Former Supt. Gary Maestas was a driving force behind student travel in local schools.
Student exchanges have been going on for decades, but during Maestas’ 12 years as superintendent, the district took a decidedly global approach to learning.
Maestas championed international exchanges, solidifying the town’s long-standing sister city relationship with the people of Shichigahama, Japan, and expanding ties to school districts in England, Italy and China.
When the pandemic started, local high school students had just returned from a trip to Milan, Italy, one of the first cities in the world to go into lockdown because of the coronavirus. Dozens of teens from China, meanwhile, were studying in Plymouth at the time as part of a fledgling, but now stalled, exchange program. After the pandemic hit, it took some students months to arrange for travel back home.
The pandemic canceled a middle school trip to back to Milan, Italy, a long-awaited celebration of the town’s quadracentennial with students and community leaders from Japan and a trip last fall to England.
Maestas said he could only watch as one of the biggest pieces of his tenure, a global learning initiative that took years of hard work to implement, fell apart.
“These are all relationships built on opportunities, not only looking to give kids the opportunity to travel and experience a new culture, but to make long lasting relationship with people,” Maestas said. “We’ve had to put it on the back burner because of COVID and I’m not sure it will pick up again, international travel in normal terms, so I think it’s put a damper on that aspect of programming for kids.”
Refunds and vouchers
Weeks after last spring’s shutdowns, Maestas met with a roomful of angry and concerned parents who had helped their children pay for the overseas adventures. The travel experiences were not cheap, ranging from $2,500 for last year’s trip to the Dominican Republic to $3,200 for this year’s week in Peru.
Maestas said families have since come to terms with the international gravity of the crisis, and the travel companies behind the trips have made accommodations that are generally acceptable given the worldwide crisis.
Tour groups eventually offered substantial refunds or vouchers for students to take another trip at a later time, which, he said, satisfied most people. The voucher system generally safeguards student contributions toward future travel, while offering the opportunity for a partial refund if the voucher cannot be used.
The voucher system is most helpful for underclassmen, who are still hopeful of traveling somewhere before they graduate, once the world returns to normal. Two years’ worth of graduating seniors, however, are in a different boat. They will not be able to attend class trips, but the vouchers allow for student travel in college and or just on their own.
Partnering People Through Service
One travel program had an easier time than most in helping families adjust to the change in plans and has been able to adapt its model of volunteerism for pandemic times.
Tara Frare, another Plymouth North teacher, has been leading student trips to the Dominican Republic since 2016. Her trips have included a day of sightseeing, but the experience in the rural communities of Rio San Juan and Constanza have been focused primarily on volunteerism and helping impoverished people build better lives and futures.
Frare helped launched a not-for-profit organization called Partnering People Through Service as a way to cut travel costs and channel more money to the villagers who desperately need it.
A grant from the local Rotary Club has helped her group provide students in Dominican villages with classroom supplies and resources, including laptop computers and the solar energy needed to run them.
Frare started her trips with 12 students in 2016. She had two trips planned in 2020 – one for 40 students last April and another for 30 more in June. Her program has proven so popular that students who were busy with sports and other activities during the spring vacation requested she host a second trip after school ended in June as well.
Both were canceled last year, but, with the exception of a $90 administrative fee, Frare was able to refund all of the money that students had put toward her trip, while staying true to her mission.
Her nonprofit absorbed the money she had advanced to the small mom-and-pop hotel where her students have been staying in the Dominican. Frare said she knew the money had already been spent by the owners to stay afloat and she could not see demanding a refund. Rather, she accepted a promise to use the money as a down payment on a future stay.
‘Charity begins at home’
She is hopeful it will happen in a couple of years, but will need to be certain that the world is ready for safe traveling. In the meantime, her group has pivoted from international to regional volunteerism. Instead of volunteering in the Dominican, the student network is helping those in need locally.
Last winter, the nonprofit donated school supplies as Christmas presents for children in the Algonquin Heights apartment complex here in Plymouth. With the help of the Rotary Club, the group has also set up little free libraries with new books in the Algonquin community.
Partnering People Through Service also funded a meals program through one of the local restaurants last year, providing badly needed sales and nutrition at the same time.
More recently, students in her group have begun working at the local food distribution program at Plymouth North High School on weekends, directing traffic and loading boxes of fresh food for the school district’s federally funded Farmers to Families program.
“Charity begins at home and so many people are food insecure right now at home, so we’re happy to contribute,” Frare said.
Frare expects the pandemic may take longer to get under control in countries like the Dominican and she does not plan to pitch a student trip in 2022. But she not only sees the program returning, she wants to expand and start exposing children in the villages to some of the marvelous local technical studies programs like cosmetology and auto repair that could help the people there.
“Our dream for the future for the Dominican Republic is that one day we can pull in the tech programs. If you can teach them to do nails or hair or fix cars, all those skills can be used. But even when we go back, we’ll continue to pivot the service model here on the South Shore. Why not have a program of meaningful service right here at home?” she said.
Zoom scavenger hunts
Local schools, meanwhile, are trying to solidify the partnerships with school districts overseas.
Just last week, Maestas, along with School Committee Chairman Kim Savery, filmed messages to their friends in Shichigahama that will be part of this year’s virtual exchange with the community in Japan.
For the last three decades, the two districts have been sending students and leaders back and forth between the two nations on alternating years. Last year’s visit from Japan and this year’s trip to Shichigahama were called off, but students have been keeping the relationship alive with Zoom meetings. Last week, they all took part in a virtual scavenger hunt from their homes.
The Plymouth School Committee must approve all international travel plans and before the pandemic did so with regular unanimity. Savery said the board will likely make sure everyone understands the potential pitfalls and may recommend travel insurance in the future. But she believes the educational experience is more than justified.
“My personal belief is that these trips are immeasurable, especially the ones where you live with families,” Savery said. “The actual immersion experiences, even if they’re only there for a week, they’re life-changing for these kids. And that’s how you create a peaceful culture. You make friends that are different than you.”