Traveling abroad can be one of the most exciting, memorable and educational experiences in a young person's life. But recent world events have reached into Kenai Peninsula schools and put a damper on planned trips.
Last week, after a teleconference with school principals and review of U.S. State Department travel warnings, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District administration decided to suspend all district-sponsored trips abroad for the time being.
"It was a unanimous decision by the principals. They were pretty spooked about the whole thing," said Gary Whiteley, the district's assistant superintendent for instruction.
The decision was a difficult one and has left many people disappointed, he said.
"It certainly wasn't taken lightly."
In a memo he sent to schools after the meeting, he said, "Although we do not want to submit to intimidation and fear by terrorists, we believe that the safety and welfare of our children and students is our primary responsibility."
Affected so far are the Kenai Central High School choir trip planned for Italy, the Soldotna High School trip to Greece and a Skyview High School exchange with the Russian Far East.
Renee Henderson, who organizes the popular choir tours, said she had been working on a March trip to Europe that would involved about 60 students. But she was considering changes even before the district decision.
"I actually had already written a letter to my families a couple weeks earlier about having a meeting," she said.
The meeting is set for Oct. 25, and the plan is to decide then if the choir trip should be postponed to 2003 or switched to a domestic destination. Even flying to other states worries her at this point, but everyone has to weigh the risks against the desire to continue normal life, she said.
"(Something bad) could happen in downtown Kenai. Who's to know," she said. "Safety is absolutely first."
The exchange between Skyview and Magadan will be postponed for one year, reported Assistant Principal Allan Miller, who is organizing the program on the Alaska side.
The exchange was financed by a State Department grant, and the government gave the schools permission to extend the project to the 2002-03 school year.
Friday, Miller sent an e-mail letter to his Russian partners and the Skyview families involved informing them of the situation. A visit by Russian students, planned for later this fall, has been put off one year, as well.
"During the past month, much has changed in terms of how Americans feel about our personal safety and that of our children. It is unfortunate that an extremist can have an impact on the lives of ordinary citizens in either of our countries ...," he wrote.
"We feel that we are entering a very difficult time for both of our countries, one that will have us all wondering about personal safety even in our own hometowns. We hope that the climate will be significantly different when we prepare for this program next summer and fall."
Whiteley said the district brought up the issue in response to State Department advisories. They cited heightened levels of concern about groups of Americans traveling abroad. This week, the advisories have been intensified in the wake of the air strikes on Afghanistan.
Sunday the State Department advised Americans to leave Afghanistan and those in other countries to monitor the local news, maintain contact with the nearest American embassy or consulate and to limit their movement in their respective locations, according to official notice posted on the Internet.
The district ban will remain in effect until the State Department indicates that international travel is returned to normal, he said, and in the meantime he will monitor the travel advisories.
Although the ban may be lifted, the advance preparations of fund raising and logistics planning necessary in making overseas field trips means it is unlikely that the 2002 trips originally planned will take place even if the ban is lifted soon. The district decided it would be better to make the decision now rather than wait until groups had invested a great deal of effort, he said.
Whiteley added that he has heard of some schools in other states that have curtailed even localized field trips. For the time being, the Kenai Peninsula district will continue with trips planned within the United States, but he admitted to being uneasy about long flights. The district is particularly concerned about trips planned to New York City and Washington, D.C.
"We are watching that one real close," he said.
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