Coronavirus forces changes to Winnipeg student trips

Some Winnipeg students will get different passport stamps than originally expected after coronavirus fears forced their spring-break travel itineraries to be changed.

Winnipeg School Division implementing lowest level of its pandemic plan

Student groups from four Winnipeg School Division high schools are set for international trips starting later this month. None have been cancelled, but the itineraries for two of the trips have been changed after the coronavirus outbreak. (motive56/Shutterstock)

Some Winnipeg students will get different passport stamps than originally expected after coronavirus fears forced their spring-break travel itineraries to be changed.

A group of Kelvin High School students was planning to go to China but travel advisories for that country mean they're going to see western Europe instead, said Winnipeg School Division spokesperson Radean Carter.

The other affected trip involved a group from Grant Park High School. Their European excursion originally included stops in Italy, but coronavirus cases have spiked in the northern part of that country and forced some places there to implement lockdowns.

The Grant Park students have adjusted their plans to avoid Italy, Carter said.

As of now, no trips have been outright cancelled — they've just been tweaked, she said.

Two other schools in the division — Churchill and Daniel McIntyre — have international trips planned for later this month. No changes have been announced to those trips yet. 

The Daniel Mac students are headed to the western Europe, while the Churchill group is going to eastern Europe.

The Churchill trip had also included a day at the Louvre in Paris, although the world's largest art museum has been shuttered due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 disease was first detected in China and has now been detected in 60 locations internationally. (NIAID-RML/The Associated Press)

"We've still got a few weeks until spring break comes.… If these advisories expand then that might affect travel more," said Carter.

"But at this point the advisory from the Canadian government is really only China and some small parts of Europe."

In all, the trips involve fewer than 100 students, Carter said.

The division has not been inundated by calls from concerned parents because the trips are not school-planned ones, she added.

They are set up by teachers and parents through private companies, such as Explorica Canada, which help co-ordinate the itineraries, so all parents of students registered for a trip have other contacts through that arrangement.

Interview requests sent by CBC News to Explorica have not been returned.

Carter said the school division also has some curriculum-based educational trips happening throughout the remainder of the school year, but none of those have been affected because none are overseas.

Focus on hygiene, awareness

Although Manitoba is still considered to be at low risk for the virus, the school division has a pandemic plan in place.

"We're ready … if things start to get worse," Carter said. "But at this point it's very much about containing the virus and preventing the spread of the virus."

The lowest level of the plan, which was created in response to the SARS outbreak in 2002 and 2003, has been implemented — but that simply means encouraging good handwashing practices and reminding people to sneeze or cough into their elbows.

"We also have a custodial crew doing extra cleaning of doorknobs and light switches and common surfaces. So those are added to their regular cleaning," Carter said.

It's also about being more aware of routine situations where germ transfer is heightened, she said.

"One of the funny things is how much open candy there might be around — how often you dip your hand into that bowl of jellybeans or or mints that's there."

"If we're really going to be careful, we have to think about those things in advance."

CBC has contacted every Winnipeg school division, as well as a number of the private schools, all of which said no trips have been cancelled.

The standard response has been that the well-being of students is a top priority and they are closely monitoring the evolving situation worldwide.

They all say they will take their direction from the government of Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada, as well as the companies organizing the trips.

"Manitobans can rely on the fact that their government and public health will keep them in the know," provincial Health Minister Cameron Friesen said on Tuesday.