The spring of 2020 has already brought on unexpected challenges and dangers due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is impacting society immensely. Even before the virus caused the necessary precautions of self-quarantine and social distancing, it began affecting the KO community. Among the unfortunate cancellations this year was the school’s annual service trip to Tobati, Paraguay.
Spanish teacher and Form Five Dean Ronald Garcia created Team Tobati in 1998 and has been running it annually ever since. The trip allows students and faculty to spend part of their spring break in a small town in Paraguay and connect with students from the Macchi School. KO students bring donations and participate in projects and activities to help develop the Tobati community.
“I’ve gone for 23 years straight, so this was really surprising and emotional for all of us,” Mr. Garcia explained. “The concerns weren’t about the coronavirus in Paraguay, since there were no cases there at that point. The concerns came from international travel. It wasn’t clear whether it would be difficult or not to get back into the country with the risk of flight cancellations and quarantine.”
Mr. Garcia, Head of School Tom Dillow, and Assistant Head of School for External Affairs Zaira Santiago had a series of meetings to come to this decision. With the majority of high schools and colleges calling off their international trips, they believed it would be difficult to justify going through with the Tobati trip. The first priority has always been everybody’s health and safety, especially during times like these.
The flights to Paraguay were scheduled for Sunday, March 8; the cancellation was decided upon and announced to students in a meeting on Wednesday, March 4. Initially, KO students were frustrated with this news. When the students from the Macchi School in Paraguay were told, many of them cried and were very emotional as well. “It’s usually a very exciting time for them,” Mr. Garcia noted. “They put a lot of work into getting things ready, and they are always super excited for us to come.”
The class of 2020 had some strong reactions to the cancellation as well. “I was really looking forward to meeting old friends I made last time I went to Tobati,” senior Esha Kataria said. “Obviously the whole point is volunteering, but I think it’s also about cultivating meaningful friendships and helping everybody out. I was super disappointed because I felt like this was my last chance as a student to go help out and see everybody again.”
Esha also emphasized that although the situation seemed mild at the time, the travel complications with coronavirus were unpredictable, and it is clear that this was the best decision for KO students’ safety, as well as the safety of those in Tobati.
For many students, this cancellation was the first time that they realized how serious the coronavirus is. “I didn’t see this affecting our life so much because the situation seemed like it was so far away at the time,” Esha explained.
Sophomore Serafina Squatrito shared similar feelings. “Even though I understood, I was pretty surprised when we had the meeting and Mr. Dillow told us the situation,” Serafina said. “I was really upset, but looking back, I think that it was definitely a necessary response to the virus.”
The funding from KO students was put towards carrying out the planned projects in Tobati. “Even though the kids at the Macchi School didn’t get the connections with KO kids this year, the upside is that they still got the funding for their projects and the support of our school,” Mr. Garcia said. Photos of these projects’ progress can be found under 2020 photos on Team Tobati’s website.
“Even though it won’t be the same without the seniors, I think that next year’s Tobati trip will hopefully be a really fun experience for everybody,” Serafina said. “I know the school is trying their best to ensure the cost won’t be a problem for anybody, which is super helpful.” Prices will be rolled over and flight tickets for 2021 are reserved so that students who were planning on going to Tobati will have the same opportunity next year, with minimal to no additional cost.
“It was a really hard and heartbreaking decision to cancel the trip because it’s the best thing I do and, in my opinion, the best thing the school does,” Mr. Garcia said. “However, we are hoping that next year will be very exciting because we’ll have kids from this year and more. My hope is that despite this unfortunate issue, everybody stays healthy and safe and the trip will be successful and big going forward.”