Longfellow Middle School’s decision to restructure its exchange program with Chinese students in response to that country’s coronavirus outbreak could be part of a larger trend of hiatuses in exchange programs in the area, including the City of Falls Church.
A flurry of calls from parents both to Longfellow and to Fairfax County Public Schools’ central office last Monday and Tuesday influenced the decision to significantly alter the program, according to FCPS public information officer Lucy Caldwell. The middle school made its decision final on the morning of Jan. 22, the same day that 21 students from Yi Chang, China had landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City and planned to bus down to their Falls Church hosts.
“Parents had been following the story about the coronavirus and felt the news was concerning enough that, if the students came, there was the potential to spread the illness,” Caldwell told the News-Press.
Fairfax Schools consulted its health department before holding a meeting at Longfellow last Wednesday morning. Health officials, including two epidemiologists, told the crowd of parents that the risk of transmission was low; however, parents felt strongly that the exchange program could cause an issue.
Out of an abundance of caution, per Caldwell, Fairfax Schools and Longfellow principal Carole Kihm believed it was best to redesign the trip. Instead of shadowing Longfellow students during their classes and staying with host families, the exchange students stayed in a hotel and visited cultural and historical sites in the area. Per Caldwell, the staff overseeing the exchange students were accommodating to the last-minute changes, though there was some disappointment from the Longfellow students and families.
The coronavirus, a respiratory illness that shares symptoms with the common cold, has killed more than 100 people and infected 4,600 others in the weeks that the virus has been on the public radar. It has also been reported that people can carry the virus without showing any symptoms. Yi Chang, the city where the students hailed from, has been quarantined within the last week to help contain the outbreak.
All public transportation, including buses, trains and planes, aren’t allowed to come in and out of the city as a result of the containment efforts. Quarantines originally started in Wuhan, which is roughly 200 miles east of Yi Chang, and now includes 15 more cities that are inhabited by nearly 50 million people, making it the largest quarantine in world history.
Longfellow opting to curtail its exchange program may influence the second leg of George Mason High School’s own agreement with the Attached Middle School at Beijing Normal University.
The program is organized and sponsored by Alpha Exchange — a third-party, travel agent-type company, according to John Brett, Falls Church City Public Schools’ director of communications. Seven exchange students had a whirlwind trip to the states, arriving on Jan. 17 and leaving days later on Jan. 22. However, as part of the arrangement, Mason students are allowed to travel to the school in Beijing in April.
“I would be very surprised if [the trips to Beijing] were not cancelled,” Brett told the News-Press. “We care deeply about our students and will continue to monitor the situation in China. If the Department of State makes a decision to restrict travel to China due to the coronavirus we will advise our community and ask that parents rethink their decision to send students to Beijing. However, the decision to go or not to go is ultimately one made by families.”
He added that whether the program continues to operate this year is Alpha Exchange’s call.
Brett referenced the U.S. Department of State’s current travel advisory, which was determined with the Center for Disease Control, and recommends that all citizens avoid non-essential travel.
Per the travel advisory, “The U.S. government has limited ability to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens in Hubei province,” which is where the virus is concentrated.