The Virus that Ate My Field Trip

For more than a dozen years, I took my 8th grade bands on an extensive field trip, near the end of the school year. The trips were always out-of-state (or out of the country), involving two or three nights in a hotel, plus a symphony performance, cultural experiences like museums, university-based skills clinics, plays and musicals, a formal, white-tablecloth dinner out–and someplace for my students to play a concert.

We selected the destination (Chicago, Cleveland, Toronto, St. Louis, Washington D.C.) in the fall, and raised funds all year. Lots of parents paid to chaperone. The destination became a kind of instructional theme—we studied the blues in our Chicago years, and all-American composers and patriotic music in the D.C. year.

Nothing I’ve done since has ever been a worthier use of instructional time, or a better learning experience, than taking 135, more or less, 13/14-year olds and perhaps 25 parents out in the wider world for a musical adventure. Playing in a Chicago jazz club (at 2:00 p.m., with pitchers of Coke), wandering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, putting on a concert for veterans in St. Louis, the Phantom of the Opera in Toronto—all good.

The Band Boosters made sure, financially, that everyone went—and one year, we took a virus along with us.

It was some kind of norovirus, according to the local health department, which got into the act after we returned, contacted by a worried mother who thought perhaps her child had been poisoned. But no. All 164 people on the trip got to experience the rapid spread of a virulent virus, up close and personal.

We weren’t 30 minutes out of town, when Bus B (the second of four motor coaches) radioed that one of my flute players was vomiting in the bus bathroom. Her brother had been sick the night before. She said she ‘felt better now.’

My assistant principal was on the trip (on Bus B) and he thought we’d be OK. He isolated her, lying down on the back seat of the bus. Nobody wanted to lose an hour by turning back, and she begged us not to make her go home.

We’d left school around 7:00 p.m. The plan was to drive through the night (approximately a 12-hour drive), have breakfast, then play a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial the next morning, followed by time to explore the Vietnam Memorial, before checking into the Washington Hilton in the afternoon to dress for a seafood dinner at the Baltimore Harbor, followed by a Symphony concert in the evening.

Of course, even though the bus lights were turned out at 10:00 p.m. and students instructed to snooze or at least rest, that didn’t happen. Kids were keyed up (musician joke). They ate snacks and goofed around and lowered their resistance right to the ground. The concert in the morning was the only thing that went really well all day. I have a great photo of the three bands together, in red, white and blue T-shirts, playing their hearts out, with Lincoln benignly watching them from the shadows behind.

By the time the buses arrived at the Baltimore Harbor, a couple dozen Bus B kids were sick. In the grass, in the water. And—during dinner—in the bushes outside the restaurant. My assistant principal offered to take all the sick kids back to the hotel (an hour away). The bus driver got lost and ended up driving aimlessly around Washington D.C. as students were violently ill, an experience my AP described as similar to being in a Fellini movie.

Meanwhile, back in Baltimore, kids who’d felt fine during dinner were rushing up the aisle at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall to despoil the bathrooms there. We did another triage on the three remaining buses. At that point—before anyone had been confined to a hotel room—all the sick people were Bus B students and parents. But by the next morning, the virus had spread to Bus C. At this point, perhaps 50 people were ill, both students and parents.

For the next couple of days, as more people got sick (and some recovered), the field trip became improvisatory. We took healthy kids outdoors, to the Mall, for games and walks. Our bus drivers bravely took those who were well on driving tours to see the White House, Ford’s Theatre, Arlington Cemetery and monuments. Half the chaperones stayed at the hotel and tended the sick.

We cancelled whole-group, ticketed activities in favor of hanging out, on buses or outdoors. The weather was beautiful, which really helped, and we were in Washington D.C. after all. It was a better solution than putting dozens of actively queasy kids on buses to share their symptoms all the way to Michigan.

The hotel and its staffers were incredibly nice. They brought trays of ginger ale to infested rooms. They offered free long-distance phone calls to kids who wanted to contact their moms—this was in 1998, before kids had cell phones. I was carrying a cell—’for emergencies’– but it worked only sporadically in reaching Michigan. I had to call a couple of parents of seriously ill kids, as well. Chaperones kidded: First the Reagan shooting, and now this—but I have strongly positive feelings about the so-called Hinckley Hilton, to this day.

By the 4th day, close to 100 people were sick or had been sick. While it was a nasty bug, it passed through (sorry) expeditiously. Most people were asymptomatic after 24 hours or so, moving into the ‘limp dishrag’ phase of the disease. We decided to stop on the way home, as planned (and paid for), to see Luray Caverns.

I hadn’t been in favor of seeing the caverns initially—not really a cultural thing—but the stop was a godsend. It was something to do together, and the caves were strangely beautiful. Even though there were a few sick kids who opted to stay on Bus D while we toured underground, it felt like we had survived something together, as a group.

Observation: the disease spread predictably. While everyone on Bus B eventually fell ill, and most of Bus C did, about half of Bus D was affected and only one person on Bus A got sick (and she was the mother of a boy who was riding on Bus B). Kids were housed four to a room—and roommates rode the same bus. If you were in the room with a sick person, you got sick.

Pretty much textbook for viral transmission. Which is why you have to feel sorry for the people who were innocently caught on a cruise ship with the corona virus.

Once we were home, most parents were just glad to coddle their kids who had lived through an intense illness without them and listen sympathetically to their horror stories. There was underground conversation about the decisions we made, I know (and I was very happy that the assistant principal had been on the trip, to deal with the more out-there accusations). There were unkind things said about the girl who was ill first. But we got through it.

At the Honors Assembly at the end of the year, students and parents presented me with a hand-painted bucket labeled ‘Washington, DC, 1998,’ which drew lots of laughs.

But—I have to say that surviving a cluster virus with a large group of students is no laughing matter. As the COVID-19 epidemic rolls across the country, there will be lots of low-information speculation on what schools and teachers should have done differently, no matter what decision is made.

This is where campaigning against public education becomes a public health issue. For some kids, school may well be the safest place to be, virus or no virus. We need to trust our schools and teachers to do their best. We need to hope for better information from our government. This will, I fear, soon become a matter of ultimate concern.

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