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Schools cancel long-distance trips due to Sept.11

WASHINGTON D.C. – For the first time in 45 years, thousands of fifth-graders from Florida will not board chartered trains for their annual sightseeing trip to the nation’s capital.

The visit this year is off, more fallout from the terrorist attacks. All over the country, school officials are canceling long-distance field trips or venturing closer to home. Parents are jumpy, too, about sending their children too far away.

“We just didn’t feel that it was appropriate at this time to chance it,” said Neal Trafford, principal of Manatee Elementary School in Lake Worth, Fla.

In New York City, officials were worried that school busses carrying students to the Bronx Zoo might be delayed and unavailable to take other students home from school in an emergency. The trips were scrubbed.

Many teachers planning to bring their classes to the nation’s capital said anthrax scares or other incidents could close museums, monuments and congressional offices, leaving the visitors with little to do while in town.

Parents have asked school boards to cancel trips beyond county or state lines, or travel that requires an overnight stay. During a recent school board meeting in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., parents asked how many bridges a bus would cross to reach Boston.

But in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., and other district have eased their trip policies since Sept. 11, when even walking field trips were canceled, but limits remain on children’s time away from school.

“We are still much more cautious,” said Charlotte schools spokeswoman Nora Carr. “We have certainly cut back on the number of field trips for elementary and middle school, and the early years of high school.”

Those include an annual tradition for fifth-graders in many schools, an overnight trip to Raleigh, the state capital. Students now must make the seven-hour round trip in one day.

In Cleveland, schools spokeswoman Patricia Martin would not discuss the district’s policies on long-distance trips, saying that since the attacks, officials deemed the matter a security issue. Officials cannot even discuss it during school board meetings, she said.

Trafford, who heads the Palm Beach County, Fla., school safety patrol program, said students earned the Washington trip as a reward for being safety monitors. He said they probably will visit other Florida attractions instead – Cape Canaveral or St. Augustine, for example.

“While they’re disappointed, I think they understand the reason behind it,” he said. “They’re pretty up on what’s happening, and I think they understand the concerns we had.”

Trafford, who made the Washington trip as a student and was preparing to go for a 16th time, said many students will miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“Some of these kids will never get to D.C.,” he said. “This would have been their only chance.”

A few districts have kept their travel plans. Most, though, are banning international travel or letting parents decide whether to let children participate.

At Apopka High School in central Florida, most families given the choice to send their children to Europe for a band trip declined. The two dozen students who chose to go will leave their instruments at home; instead, they will tour Italy, France and Switzerland.

In the absence of field trips, many schools are turning to the Internet, subscribing to services that provide “virtual field trips” with links to Web sites following explorers and giving students multimedia lessons on places such as New York’s Ellis Island, the Oregon Trail and the White House.

Travel promoters note that crime, which they consider a greater threat than terrorism, is down in the nation’s big cities. They said many teachers remain committed to long-distance trips, but must follow the lead of parents and administrators.

“The teachers themselves have been the most hardy,” said John Milewski of the Close Up Foundation, a nonprofit organization that brings students to Washington for a week on Capitol Hill. “I think they feel, like us, that the imperatives for civic education just went through the roof after September 11.”

Jim Hall, president and CEO of WorldStrides, the nation’s largest educational student travel, said students who visit Washington now are especially eager to see the exterior of Pentagon. From a memorial nearby that commemorates the victims of the attacks, the ravages of the terrorist plane crash are still evident. “Everybody wants to see it,” Hall said.

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