FORT KENT, Maine — Ten Fort Kent Community High School students prepared to leave for an exchange trip to France will be staying home after the school board canceled the trip amid fears about coronavirus.
A coronavirus first detected in China and now in almost 70 locations internationally, including the United States, causes a respiratory disease that can be fatal, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The SAD 27 board of directors voted unanimously at an emergency meeting held at 6 a.m. Tuesday, March 3, to withdraw its support for the exchange trip as the coronavirus rapidly spread throughout France.
The students were supposed to leave in less than two weeks.
“This was an unanimous decision of the full board based on the recommendation of the building principal and superintendent. There wasn’t a lot of time to waste as the airline tickets would have needed to be purchased soon,” said SAD 27 Superintendent Ben Sirois.
“We understand that some are heartbroken, but student safety and well-being will always take precedence over anything else in the schools.”
Fort Kent French language educator Robert Daigle, who has led the exchange to Cholet, France, for the past dozen years, met with the students and their parents on Tuesday night to discuss the board’s decision.
Daigle told the group that 120 schools were closed in France that day due to concerns about the spread of the virus. He also said that from Monday to Tuesday, the number of cases in that country had doubled from 100 to 200.
“It’s not like the health care system has this under control right now,” Daigle said. “I think that they’re just beginning to grapple with the virus in their country.”
Daigle said he was disappointed the trip was canceled, but ultimately agreed with the school board’s decision.
“I have a mother who is 86 years old. Our demographic in this area highly favors the elders,” Daigle said. “If I brought this virus back from France and my mom died, I’m not sure that I could emotionally recover from that knowledge.”
Student Macy Bard, a junior who had planned to take the trip, pointed out that statistically, a miniscule portion of the French population had been infected with the virus.
“What if it all dies down in a week and we canceled this trip for nothing,” she asked Daigle.
“I don’t think that’s realistic,” Daigle said.
Bard became emotional as she acknowledged that the trip was not going to happen. “I know me and other people in our little group are having an extremely hard time,” she said.
Bard’s mother, Wendy Hebert, said that her daughter had worked two part-time jobs to raise the $900 required for the trip, not including spending money.
“Macy worked very hard to make this happen so for me as her mother, it’s killing me because it’s killing her,” Wendy Hebert said.
All of the students were disappointed, but some also felt the board had made the right decision.
“I know it’s the safer bet to not go,” said student Mya Eno.
“We just don’t know enough about [the virus] yet,” Mya’s mother Lisa Eno said. “We were just not lucky at this time.”
All of the students who planned to participate in the exchange will be allowed to participate in next year’s trip to France, Daigle said, with the exception of one girl who will graduate in June. That student was able to attend the trip in 2019.