Cultural exchange programs postponed due to COVID-19 outbreak

On two fateful afternoons, tears and sobs were exchanged across continents by exchange students and their hosts. On March 1 and March 4, Bonita Vista High’s (BVH) Italian and French cultural exchange programs were temporarily cancelled due to concerns over the COVID-19 outbreak.

COVID-19 is an infectious disease from a large family of coronaviruses whose effects range from the common cold to more severe diseases like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). The outbreak originated in Wuhan, China in Dec. 2019 and was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11. COVID-19 has rapidly diffused worldwide, including to the countries of Italy, France, and Spain, where BVH hosts cultural exchange programs. 

As of March 13, the BVH Spanish cultural exchange program is set to leave for Madrid from Sep. 19 to Oct. 17, though cancellation remains unclear. Additionally, it has not been confirmed that any hosts from the recent Chinese exchange program in late Jan. have introduced cases of coronavirus at BVH.

On March 1, the BVH French exchange program was abruptly terminated when the French Ministry of Education alerted the 16 French students and two teachers that all school excursions would be cancelled. The exchange students were set to arrive in Chula Vista on March 2 and leave on March 12. Reimbursements for the voyage remain unclear.

“I cried so much, and I’m still so sad. It was so abrupt. I was so excited to come to the U.S. for the first time and see Audrey [my correspondent]. I have lost lots of meetings, discoveries and an amazing and unique experience,” French student Marie Vuillemin, age 15, said.

The students were set to arrive from the Institute of Genech in Lilles, France and tour various attractions in San Diego and Los Angeles with their hosts. They planned on visiting Old Town, Universal Studios and the Griffith Observatory. 

I’ve lost the chance of seeing one of my best friends. My biggest regret is not being able to fulfill her dream of going to Universal Studios [with her]. It feels so unfair that I was able to go to France and spend an amazing time with her and I’m unable to give her the same experience,” Advanced Placement (AP) French student and junior Audrey Kunz said.

French 5-6, International Baccalaureate (IB) French SL, AP French and IB Spanish SL and HL teacher Marina Dillingham purchased bus passes and organized student excursions with funds from BVH’s French Club. She planned an informal lunch with Hawaiian food and a cake with a ‘Welcome Genech’ message to commemorate the students’ arrival on March 2.

Dillingham is coordinating with the Institute of Genech to host the French students in September or October and have BVH students leave for France in the Spring of 2021. The program will be divided with Chula Vista High (CVH) to accommodate for additional French students. 

I feel pretty positive. It will be fun to have them here next October. I think it is a great time for us; we have the most beautiful sunsets here in October, so it is a really nice time for them to come,” Dillingham said.

Similarly, the BVH Italian exchange program was notified of its cancellation through a steady stream of updates from Italian 1-2, 3-4, 5-6 and AP Italian teacher Robert Pirazzini. An email was sent to his students who were attending the trip on Feb. 27 that detailed concerns about cases of coronavirus in northern Italy, where BVH students were set to stay from March 17 to March 27. However, they did not receive any confirmation of rescheduling until their airline approved. 

The airline, Lufthansa, was being very strict and was not allowing us to cancel or even change our flights. Finally, when the [Center of Disease Control and Prevention] raised the threat level to three, [the highest level], Lufthansa eased up and said that we could not get a refund as these were group sales tickets but that we could rebook our trip,” Pirazzini said. 

As concern arose for the spread of COVID-19 to Montebelluna, Italy, where BVH students planned to arrive, Pirazzini began sending a chain of emails to his students. He kept them informed on the state of the trip, provided further airline information and addressed his meetings with BVH Principal Roman Del Rosario, Ed.D.

“We found out [on Feb. 27] when the first message [was sent that] because of the coronavirus outbreak, our trip might be canceled.  Then, news started to lean towards the [possibility that the] trip was going to be canceled, so it was a slow [process]. [Pirazzini] gave us daily updates on it. He would tell us whether Lufthansa had said anything about trips being stopped,” Italian 5-6 student and junior Mario Payan said. 

Currently, Pirazzini and his students are scheduled to have their Italian exchange from June 5 to June 17, as Lufthansa would only let them rebook their flight until June 30. Pirazzini believes this is the best possible solution as the weather will be warm and the Italian students will be on break, opening up more time for cultural immersion.

“It has been a stressful time for me and for the families involved. We were all quite disappointed at the thought of not going. These students have already hosted the Italians and many had been waiting until their junior and senior year to participate in the exchange. Fortunately, we found the best possible solution,” Pirazzini said. “Now that [the trip] is being postponed until the summer, they are very excited.”