WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Athena Tedder, 13, dangled her feet in the fountain of the World War II memorial on the Washington Mall and watched her classmates splash and laugh, soaking in the afternoon sun and the sight of the nation’s capital for the first time.
Across the mall, which was eerily void of tourists for months during the pandemic, groups of eighth graders like Tedder’s class from Clarkston Junior High School in Clarkston, Michigan were stepping off buses in matching T-shirts and mostly ditching their face masks as they followed chaperones from memorial to memorial.
Clarkston Junior High School had pushed back their Washington trip for a year, waiting until the COVID-19 case numbers were low and enough tourist sites were open to make their 10-hour bus trip worthwhile. They finally embarked in mid-June with nearly three dozen students, a handful of chaperones and a slightly altered itinerary from their pre-pandemic tradition.
“I didn’t think it was going to happen, but I’m glad it did happen,” Tedder said of the delayed trip, adding that she was grateful for the social opportunity after seeing friends inconsistently all year while the school toggled between remote and hybrid learning.
For many eighth-grade students around the United States, an overnight trip to the nation’s capital is a much-anticipated rite of passage that complements their American history studies. The trips came to a halt when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020.
But swarms of wide-eyed, backpack-clad 13-year-olds have begun popping up around the capital in the last few weeks, confirming for many locals that the city is returning to a state of pre-pandemic normalcy.
“The pent-up demand is huge,” said Bob Gogel, CEO of student travel group WorldStrides, which operated Clarkston’s tour and typically runs Washington tours for several thousand school groups per year.
The company started ramping up rebookings when the vaccines became widely available.
“The level of optimism is just getting better every day,” Gogel said.
The Clarkston group’s chaperones took each student’s temperature twice a day and reminded them to mask up when indoors, even though some were vaccinated. Everyone had to test negative for COVID-19 before coming, said history teacher Michael Greve, who has led Clarkston’s annual trip for 16 years.
“It’s really a lot of different hoops to jump through that we’re not used to, but those were the price of admission this year,” Greve said.
As tourist sites are gradually reopening, school groups have largely been limited to outdoor stops, including a walking tour of Arlington National Cemetery, photos outside the White House and a Nationals baseball game. Usual itinerary mainstays like Smithsonian Museums and the Capitol building were not yet allowing groups to make reservations.
“I really wanted to go to the top of the Washington Monument,” said Collin Elliott, 14, as he sidestepped crushed cicadas on his walk through Arlington National Cemetery with his classmates from Valley Middle School in Apple Valley, Minnesota.
The Washington Monument was closed to visitors. Still, Elliott said he was grateful he got to come on the trip at all since it was canceled last spring and he had been looking forward to it for years. It was his second time traveling by plane.
Lois Mobisa, 15, had been signed up to go on Valley Middle School’s canceled trip last year when she was in eighth grade and decided to come on the trip as a ninth grader this year. Her family moved to Minnesota from Kenya in 2008 and this was her first time traveling to the East Coast.
“I’ve seen things I never thought in a million years I’d ever be able to see,” she said.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; editing by Paul Thomasch and Lisa Shumaker)