When a group of 48 students, parents, teachers and administrators from Tipton-Rosemark Academy departed for a trip to Europe on March 7, coronavirus was certainly on the radar of most Americans.
Schools were not closed, however, toilet paper aisles were still well-stocked and President Trump had not yet issued a travel ban from Europe to the United States.
That all changed while the group was there and, as you can imagine, some problems ensued.
Natalie Allen, one of the parents on the trip, compared it to a classic comedic movie from 1987, but way less funny.
“It was literally ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles,’” Allen said. “No joke.”
The group had traveled from London to Paris when the president made his travel ban announcement. The third leg of the trip was supposed to go to Barcelona, but TRA Upper School Principal Stephanie Wehrer, who was with the group, quickly nixed that.
She said a representative with the travel agency that booked the trip wanted to send them to Spain. After the group waited almost 16 hours in a Paris hotel, the rep explained that the travel ban did not apply to American citizens, thus it was not an emergency requiring special travel arrangements. Wehrer was having none of that.
“I said it was an emergency to get our people back home,” Wehrer said. “They said to stay put. I felt like they were trying to save money. They wanted to take us to Spain, further into Europe. I said we’re going back to London, closer to home. They fought with me on that. I said, ‘You have an hour or I’m going to make plans myself. We are not going to Spain.’ Within 45 minutes they made arrangements to get us to London and back home.”
Wehrer was communicating with a friend who was a pilot and knew there were flights out of London to the U.S. She was able to use that information as leverage and get the group closer to home.
“She stepped in and took charge of a situation that could have been chaotic,” Allen said. “She was a champ.”
The group took a train from Paris to London on March 13 and caught a flight from there to Atlanta on the 14th. An overnight bus ride from Atlanta got them to Memphis in the early morning hours of March 14. Everybody finally arrived at the TRA campus about 4 a.m.
While everybody hung out at the Paris hotel for what seemed like forever, some parents wondered if they should take their kid to the airport and figure things out themselves. Ultimately, though, the group did not splinter.
“There wasn’t a fear that we wouldn’t get back, it was just not knowing what was going on,” Allen said. “They were letting all Americans come back. The unknown was difficult, though. Everybody really jumped in and helped. Several parents thought about going to the airport for a jump seat, but we decided to all stay together.”
Said Wehrer: “I think it would have been very easy for panic and fear to set in. The first thing I told my teachers, and then we communicated that to the parents on the trip, was we’re going to get home. This could be potentially scary, especially for kids on the trip without their parents, and they’re going to look to us whether or not they should be afraid in this moment. We’ve got to make sure we stay calm, work with one another, and set the tone for how they should feel. Our group did a phenomenal job of staying calm and reassuring the kids. I never felt there was any type of fear or somebody grabbing their kids and leaving. We stayed together as a group.”
Despite the logistical issues, some fun was had. Everybody visited the Louvre Museum in Paris and spent a lot of time exploring London. Social distancing was not a thing yet in either city.
Allen and Wehrer both said they don’t feel like the risk of being exposed to coronavirus was any higher in France or England than it is stateside.
The group of 25 students and 23 adults made some memories and probably learned a little bit about themselves.
“Tipton-Rosemark is a Christian school,” Wehrer said. “We had an opportunity to pray with our kids and lean on our faith in times like this. I feel like that was a huge advantage for us. I think that made a big difference.”