Important Travel Considerations for K-12 Schools
Host: Hello, and welcome to Prevention and Protection, the United Educators’ risk management podcast. Today, Hillary Pettegrew from UE’s Risk Research team and Clare Sisisky from the Global Education Benchmark Group will discuss some important considerations K-12 schools should take into account when planning and undertaking travel with their students, whether overseas or within the U.S.
Before we begin, a quick reminder that you can find other episodes of the Prevention and Protection podcast, as well as risk management resources on our website, www.ue.org. This and all podcast episodes are also available on Apple Podcasts. Now I’ll turn it over to Hillary.
Hillary Pettegrew: Thank you. And welcome to our listeners. I’m Hillary Pettegrew, Senior Risk Management Counsel at UE. And I’m very happy to introduce our guest speaker, Clare Sisisky, who is the Executive Director of the Global Education Benchmark Group (GEBG). Welcome Clare, and thanks so much for joining me.
Clare Sisisky: Thanks Hillary. I’m glad to be here.
Pettegrew: Clare, could you give our listeners some brief background information about GEBG?
Sisisky: Sure. GEBG is a nonprofit association of schools that have a commitment to global education. And right now we serve about 310 schools, mostly independent schools in North America, but we have some public schools, some charter schools, and we do have member schools in about 16 countries. So we have this great network of educators from around the world that are committed to global education who collaborate and partner with each other. But one of the primary things that we do is provide benchmarking data, research, and model practices in the field of global education, including in risk management for overnight off-campus programming, including programming abroad.
And the Global Education Benchmark Group really was started by educators who came together and wanted to share resources and model practices and data around how to really implement global education programming, both in the classroom and in the field for their students in the best way that they could and in the most responsible way that they could. And GEBG really grew from there. It’s an organization that’s about 10 years old.
Pettegrew: Thanks. That should be quite helpful for people in our audience who weren’t already familiar with your group. Now let’s start by acknowledging the elephant in the room for school-sponsored travel over the last several years, which is, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among our K-12 school members, UE is seeing a gradual return to more robust travel, including some international travel programs. But relatively few schools seem to have reached their pre-pandemic travel levels yet. Clare, what’s your experience with GEBG member schools?
Sisisky: Yeah, thanks Hillary. I mean, we are seeing schools returning to travel programming. But as you mentioned, it looks a little different and it might be in slightly different numbers than, say, in 2019 pre-pandemic. But GEBG does collect the data on this. It’s something that we share regularly with our member schools.
And so our data is indicating that by the summer of 2022, 88% of the 123 schools reporting their data had returned to domestic overnight travel programs, but only 45% had returned to international overnight travel programming. So we’re really seeing schools begin by returning to domestic overnight programming and then adding the international programming at a later date.
Both K-12 students and their parents continue to have a real appetite for the travel and the unique opportunities that it offers. So schools are feeling the need and, in some cases, pressure to meet that demand. And so it’s important that schools really think about how to prepare to conduct this kind of teaching and learning in the field, whether it is domestic or international.
Some schools have really focused on this domestic travel in an effort to sort of make up for decreased international travel. But as we’ll discuss more later, schools also need to be aware of risk management issues with domestic trips, even though a lot of schools have been reporting to GEBG that they’re finding really compelling global learning opportunities even within their own national borders.
Pettegrew: Well, those are some interesting statistics and figures. Now, Clare, of course, you recently assisted UE by reviewing three resources we created for our K-12 members, including two checklists applicable to study abroad programming and a third piece focusing on things schools should consider with regard to domestic travel with their students. And while working on those resources together, and again, as we were preparing for this discussion, you and I talked about some mistakes you’ve seen schools make and the problems that can result from them. The first mistake you identified is schools focusing too much on the risk of COVID-19. Can you go into a little more detail about that?
Sisisky: While the pandemic is certainly a legitimate concern, schools should have appropriate protocols to deal with it. And that takes time, and it takes focus in order to think about COVID management and COVID protocols when you are with students overnight, especially for those schools that are not used to that and when you are with students far from campus or the home community. And this could include things like understanding any local requirements for masking or vaccination in the trip location.
But as we discussed, Hillary, I am concerned that schools may be focusing almost exclusively on COVID risks due to limited time and limited opportunities for a larger group to meet to discuss this. And that they could be possibly unintentionally ignoring or giving not quite enough attention to other risks that they’ve always faced. And I know that we’ve discussed that these things continue to come up and they continue to be the more significant incidents. And these include, for example, student alcohol and drug consumption, which comes with a lot of risks associated to it, sexual misconduct, vehicle or other transportation accidents, drownings, other accidental injuries such as those that might result from falls while hiking or being in more sort of outdoor settings, which can be a really helpful COVID mitigation strategy, but comes with other risks. And then, increasingly GEBG is hearing about incidents during travel programs that result from student mental health issues. And this is something we’ve heard a lot about recently. And so schools really need to think through how they would handle these incidents and how they can prepare knowing that these topics and these risks continue to need to be at the forefront of their risk management discussions.
Pettegrew: Yes, I’d absolutely agree. Those risks you just mentioned tend to be among those UE sees reflected in our claims on a regular basis. And, in fact, for our K-12 school members that take students overseas, alleged sexual misconduct during the trip has been the claim over the years that we’ve seen made most frequently.
So Clare, the second mistake we discussed was overreliance on third-party providers. Can you amplify on that a bit?
Sisisky: Third-party travel providers or education travel companies can be an excellent resource for schools. And we have seen many more GEBG member schools beginning to use these schools as they have returned to travel programming after the pandemic. But you really have to manage the relationships appropriately and be alert to common pitfalls. So there’s a few things that stand out here.
First, schools sometimes tend to assume that they can completely “outsource the program” — and therefore, sort of avoid liability or in some way sort of responsibility for the program, and therefore, the risk. But if a school has any involvement in sending students on a travel program, which includes choosing an external provider, they will most likely still be legally responsible, at least to some degree, if anything goes seriously wrong. And parents will always assume that your school is the primary responsible party for their child’s safety. That is the relationship that parents and schools enter into with each other. And so, regardless of whether you are using a third party or you run the program directly, that relationship with the parent is still going to be their assumption.
I think secondly, schools should always vet outside providers really carefully. And I will say since the pandemic really devastated the educational travel industry, this really includes re-vetting partners that you used previously. Most have been significantly impacted by the pandemic. And so you really need to know what’s their current status, who are their current personnel, how are they training their staff, how are they recruiting people. They’ve been facing some of the same recruitment challenges that have been well documented in education settings and schools as well.
So you want to make sure that they have the appropriate personnel and resources to meet your school and your students’ need. And ways that you can sort of vet for this are examining the provider’s written protocols and come to a clear written agreement about which of your school’s policies will apply. For example, is there alignment of the policies between the school and the travel provider around things like swimming, around things like cell phones. And so making sure that the school’s policies are the ones that are really running the program is something that’s really important. And then other vetting questions that schools hopefully are used to engaging with anyone that they contract with to take care of their students would include questions about their staff training, background checks, and, as well, any things like sexual misconduct response, protocols, etc.
Pettegrew: OK. Thank you. And third, you mentioned that many schools are experiencing problems getting qualified faculty leaders for trips — and that that can lead to mistakes when they do try to staff up their programs.
Sisisky: Yeah. This has been a big challenge from schools that we’ve heard of in the spring and summer of 2022 as schools really went back to overnight travel programming, including international programming — that the faculty were much more reluctant now to undertake this role. I think some of it is well-documented teacher burnout, fatigue. But I will say that those faculty members [who] are experienced are often the ones that understand what it really takes to be responsible for minors in a location far away from home 24 hours a day, multiple days in a row. And so that understanding also comes with perhaps some hesitation to do this at a time when they know that the additional stress of traveling with students during the pandemic just adds a lot of different layers for them.
There are things that schools can do. Administrators can really make sure that they are intentionally not thinking of this as an opportunity that’s a benefit for teachers. They can really recognize how much work is involved and acknowledge it and reward it appropriately. This could mean that there is a financial compensation or other sort of workload adjustment compensations. GEBG has benchmarking data on this. And most schools in our network do offer some form of financial compensation for travel program leaders that are faculty. This may vary depending on location and length of the program, etc.
But schools should also show that they value the work in other ways, such as making that an explicit part of job duties or performance evaluation. Considering it when thinking about workload or the number of classes that faculty might be teaching. Incorporating it into job descriptions or the recruiting process in a way that’s similar to how many independent schools do for athletic coaching.
Pettegrew: So I gather that if there are problems recruiting sufficiently experienced trip leaders, some schools may have to turn to less experienced leaders. What types of mistakes or problems have you seen result from that?
Sisisky: All faculty, for the most part, they have good intentions and they want students to have a wonderful learning experience. But there are some common mistakes that we see more inexperienced faculty leaders making. The good news is that these can be easily sort of mitigated and hopefully prevented with the support and training from the school.
Examples would include things like leaders changing trip itinerary while on the ground without advising the home campus. So, for example, they might sort of come up on this beach as they’re driving through rural Costa Rica and the travel program provider tour guide or educator would say, “Oh, this is a great place for swimming. We swim here all the time. We believe it’s safe.” And the more inexperienced faculty member would sort of default to the expert on the ground and be excited for the students to have a refreshing swim after a day of hiking and studying the scientific experiments that are happening at a nearby research facility. The issue can be that if the parents have not given informed consent for swimming in an open body of water, this can really expose a school to significant liability if something — and anything — can happen with a high-risk activity like swimming. So that’s one example.
In the past, allowing students to enter into a taxicab without an adult presence is another example. Incidents where a student becomes ill and the faculty leader believes they need prompt medical treatment but allows themselves to be persuaded otherwise by a representative of the third-party provider who doesn’t think it’s that serious and thinks that maybe they can wait until they reach the next large town.
Those are the kinds of things that we’re seeing kind of come up. I think in general, we are seeing what is sort of been well-documented in education, at least in the United States, called pandemic fatigue, which sort of leads inexperienced trip leaders to let students have fun on the trip, to sort of not fight them, to let minor behavior issues go unaddressed, which can escalate and lead to students making poor decisions, violating school policies, or even engaging in dangerous activities or activities that might lead to them harming each other, or to even harming themselves.
Pettegrew: So Clare, is there a general approach you’d recommend schools taking to address these problems with trip leaders as opposed to just dealing with them on a case-by-case basis?
Sisisky: Yeah, absolutely. I think it should be a holistic approach. Educators engage in this kind of teaching and learning because they believe in it, because they understand and have seen it be transformative, but it’s work. And I think it’s really important that schools treat it as work, that they treat it with a seriousness that they would any other aspect of work within a school. And there are some ways that I think they can really help and support recruitment and growing, professional growth for these kinds of travel program leaders. So I would consider expanding how you think about the travel program leaders.
For example, you could appoint a team of leaders composed of faculty with different but complimentary skill sets vs. having one primary leader who then may be responsible for recruiting others or may tend to choose faculty from the same department, such as, for example, a program in Spain might not need three Spanish teachers to travel on the program. You might need some with the local and linguistic expertise. But you might have others that have different skill sets such as financial roles or taking a risk management lens or someone that has experience, for example, with student mental health or talking to students about identity or other issues that may come up when they’re in country.
And so this does require school administrators to take a greater role in the process than perhaps some schools have done in the past. This is something that we see pretty consistently with GEBG member schools. As their program evolves and they take the risk management of their overnight programming more seriously, administrators do tend to play a greater role, including those in HR who may be privy to important information or insight that others may not. And then that really eliminates the sort of trip proposal development solely up to the faculty leader, which is an important risk management strategy, to be really involved in thinking about risk even at the proposal process.
Secondly, I think you can really train and support your travel program leaders. And this is something that is especially critical for those with less experience. They have no ill intent. They want to do a good job, but training can be really, really helpful in setting not only the expectations of the job, but in developing a skill set that will be useful both on and off campus. So one training approach I recommend is going through hypothetical scenarios in advance. It doesn’t have to be formal, although certainly outside facilitation can be helpful, but it definitely should be location-specific and it should also be itinerary-specific, really highlighting some of the areas of high risk in the itinerary.
So this gives leaders an idea of things they might run into and how they should react. It also helps them know who’s on call back at home on campus and when and where they might need to get local authorities or others involved.
You could include a scenario where a student goes missing. This could also be a scenario related to a student going missing, whether in the ocean or on a mountain hike. So whether that’s in the ocean or a mountain hike or in the city, that response is going to be pretty different and for all trip locations. Because as Hillary noted, there are claims that GEBG and UE see regularly [that] suggest trying to include a scenario that involves student sexual assault and/or one involving drug or alcohol use. And sometimes those things are connected.
And I would say that that’s student on student. But also, one of the things that’s really important is helping and supporting your students understand the adults, from working with a third party or working with other partner schools as well. So maybe a scenario that involves another adult that is not an employee of the school is something to think about, just talking through what that might look like. And it’s really important, I think, to let travel program leaders know that they won’t be alone during the program and that they will have support from the home campus if they need it. And making sure that the right people are available or know that they’re part of this team is really important as well. And something that business office and school leaders can really help lay that foundation.
Pettegrew: Now, Clare, you mentioned an increase in domestic overnight travel by K-12 schools — in some cases, at least — especially as compared to the return of international travel programs. Are there any trends you or GEBG is seeing now with domestic K-12 school travel that you’d like to note for the audience?
Sisisky: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we’ve definitely seen domestic travel moving away from major cities. And as I think I mentioned before, this is really a COVID mitigation strategy and it has been really helpful in that way. But they are moving into programs that focus on outdoor activities or that are visiting rural communities or visiting communities that may have limited access to health care or may have a different set of cultural norms than the school faculty leaders are used to.
For example, we’ve seen a significant uptick in schools traveling to places like Navajo Nation. And so this can be really beneficial in so many ways for students and really enhance their learning, but it may also involve more risky activities. Some of the outdoor activities, for example, hiking, climbing, swimming, which could result in more injuries. But it can also mean that they’re further away from home, or as I mentioned, in different cultural settings where they’re not familiar with kind of the cultural norms or protocols.
And so this idea that domestic programming is closer to home, more familiar and in some ways involves less risk may not always be the case. And that is an assumption to make sure that is sort of checked and discussed. The problems I mentioned with third-party providers can be perhaps even more significant for domestic travel in this area. Schools may be using smaller or less well-resourced vendors, and they might have more limited staffing. So there can be real deficiencies in planning or emergency response protocols. They can also be wonderful partners that provide local expertise and really stellar planning. So you just have to think about who you’re working with and definitely vetting those providers.
And then, I will say that some schools are finding that domestic travel costs just as much as international or perhaps even more in some cases than international travel. And parents are increasingly reluctant to pay. And so there are schools that have been trying to trim the itinerary or take one less adult or think about ways that they can mitigate some of that expense. But that can often come at the price of increased attention to risk. So these I think are just things to be careful about. And definitely think twice if schools are thinking that replacing international travel with domestic travel can solve a lot of the problems that schools might be thinking about related to student travel.
Pettegrew: And before we wrap up, Clare, do you have any takeaways that you’d really like K-12 schools to keep in mind?
Sisisky: Thanks, Hillary. It’s a great question. I would say based on my experience, working with so many different schools and spending years and years of my life in the field with students and then serving as a senior administrator overseeing this kind of teaching and learning, I would say the No. 1 thing is for no one person at your school to be responsible for making decisions about travel. And that, I think, seems obvious, but it’s really important, especially given the changing situations and the ongoing risk assessment that needs to happen. Nobody should be making those in isolation.
I have heard from some global education directors that they’re sort of left to handle everything themselves. And certainly they can handle a lot of the logistics and the parent communication and the programming decisions. But when it comes to making judgment about a school’s risk tolerance and about which activity’s acceptable and how to mitigate risks that are inherent to this kind of teaching and learning, those decisions really should be best addressed by a committee. And that should involve some of the school’s top administrators. And this really is not the job of one individual regardless of their title.
Second, I really hope that schools won’t give up on the idea of international travel in particular. But I would say off-campus, overnight travel programming in general, I think, it can feel like was a lot of trouble. Is it worth it? But not only is there very strong student and parent interest, I would also highlight that research indicates that this kind of program not only helps students really develop greater skills and things like adaptability and resilience, but it also helps them learn really long-lasting intercultural skills, especially the international intercultural programs. And those skills are so key in today’s world and schools often struggle to teach them in the classroom. So this kind of learning opportunity really is incredible and something that students and parents value. And there are absolutely ways that schools can manage and mitigate the risk associated with them.
Pettegrew: Well, Clare, I think those are excellent points and a really good way to conclude our discussion today.
For any schools listening that aren’t currently members of the Global Education Benchmark Group and would like to explore the benefits of joining, please visit www.gebg.org for more information.
And schools that are members of United Educators can, of course, access our resources on K-12 travel issues, including the checklists and the domestic travel guidance that I mentioned, on our website, www.ue.org.
And just following up on Clare’s suggestion about using hypothetical scenarios for training program leaders, we do have a crisis response library of tabletop exercises, and that includes several scenarios specific to K-12 study abroad addressing incidents like a bus accident, a missing student, and sexual misconduct.
Just searching the term “Study Away” on our website will take you to our Study Away Resource Collection page, which includes these and other resources, all of which are free to UE members. Thanks very much to everyone for listening today. And thank you again so much to Clare Sisisky for joining me.
Host: From United Educators insurance, this is the Prevention and Protection podcast. For additional United Educators resources, please visit our website, www.ue.org.