Sussex students embark on school trip to Italy despite COVID-19 outbreak
More than 3,000 people in Italy have tested positive for coronavirus and 107 have died
A New Brunswick mayor says he isn't overly worried about a group of high school students travelling to Italy, a European country which has been hardest hit by the coronavirus in recent weeks.
Nearly 30 students from Sussex Regional High School will travel to southern Italy this week for March Break.
"It's quite possible where they go in Italy, they may not have any risk of exposure that's any greater than someone who was in say, Toronto or Vancouver," said Marc Thorne, mayor of Sussex.
The group of students were supposed to travel to Milan and Venice in northern Italy. Instead they were forced to stay in Florence and Vatican City, 250 and 530 kilometres south of Venice.
Just days before the week-long trip, teachers and group leaders considered cancelling it altogether. The day students were set to leave, the group was also considering travelling in Germany instead.
"They're taking a chance, they've looked at the odds and they've decided to take the trip and it was their decision to make," Thorne said.
Thorne said he's also hopeful the group of students will self-monitor once they return home on Saturday and visit a doctor as soon as possible if they need to.
"I'm sure their parents will be watching it quite closely."
What's wrong with travelling to Italy?
Italy has seen its virus caseload explode since the first positive COVID-19 test was registered in northern Lombardy on Feb. 19. Since then, more than 3,000 people in Italy have tested positive, and 107 people have died. Italy is the epicentre of Europe's outbreak.
Italy's education minister confirmed reports Wednesday that universities and schools will close from Thursday until March 15 because of the outbreak. All sporting events in the country must take place without fans present until April 3, the government announced.
Italian media say the government has ordered schools nationwide to close for the next two weeks to limit the spread of the coronavirus, but the country's education minister says a final decision on the closure has not yet been confirmed.
State-run RAI, the ANSA and LaPresse news agencies reported Wednesday that Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte had agreed on the closure during a cabinet meeting. But Education Minister Lucia Azzolina told reporters that nothing is final yet.
What happens when students return?
Upon any traveller's return to Canada, Dr. Cristin Muecke, New Brunswick's acting chief medical officer of health, said the Canadian Border Services Agency will screen people and provide appropriate advice based on the traveller's current health and travel history.
She said actions could include immediate medical assessment, advice to self isolate at home for 14 days or self-monitor for 14 days.
"At the current time, travellers returning from Italy are being advised to self-monitor, but this could change," she said in an emailed statement to CBC News.
The federal government has issued several advisories since the outbreak started and is advising Canadians to avoid non-essential travel to northern Italy because of COVID-19.
'We can't get scared of everything'
This is the first time 17-year-old Izaac Dalling has travelled outside North America.
Before the Sussex student left for Italy, his father, Harold Dalling, advised him to take precautions about the COVID-19 outbreak and to enjoy his trip.
"We can't get scared of everything that happens, we've still go to live life and move on," he said. "The world can't just stop."
Dalling said discussions are continuing to take place between group leaders about any potential quarantine or changes to travel plans while students are abroad.
"They're making adjustments along the way as best they can," he said.
Students return to New Brunswick on Saturday.
Who's in charge?
The trip to Italy was organized by teachers and parents through EF Educational Tour Canada.
It is not district or school sanctioned, according to Anglophone School District—South superintendent Zoe Watson.
CBC News has asked for an interview with the well-known tour company about the specific trip to Italy but did not receive a response.
In an emailed statement, the company said they are closely monitoring the COVID-19 outbreak and are "in constant communication with our offices around the world, and are actively following the guidance of all relevant health authorities."
The statement went on to say that EF Tours is also working with their groups, schools and individual families to provide "flexible options" for tours that have already been booked.
A slight detour
Patrick MacDonald, a Grade 12 student at Harbour View High School in Saint John, was scheduled to fly to Italy and Greece over March Break.
Before they were set to depart, he said students and chaperones heard the trip may be cancelled.
Instead, students from Harbour View and Simonds High School in Saint John, have travelled to Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Liechtenstein.
Students also travelled through France, which has 212 confirmed cases, and four deaths from COVID-19. President Emmanuel Macron warned that the health crisis could last several months.
That trip was also organized by EF Educational Tours Canada.
Over text message Wednesday afternoon, MacDonald admitted he was a bit nervous about his trip abroad and the COVID-19 outbreak. He's been making sure to frequently wash his hands and avoid touching his face, advice he received from his mother, who's a registered nurse.
"The situation seems well controlled and panic is minimal," he said.
New Brunswick universities have been monitoring the situation and reviewing travel programs.
Some students at the Université de Moncton were supposed to participate in the Paris SMT World Tourism Expo this month. But the event was cancelled due to the coronavirus epidemic.
With files from Thomson Reuters