By Tessa Raebeck
Following rave reviews from a group of students who recently returned from a field trip to Spain, the Sag Harbor Board of Education on Monday, April 27, approved a Pierson High School extracurricular field trip to Cuba.
Peter Solow, an art teacher at Pierson who was one of the chaperones in Spain during the spring break trip, told the board the same British company that had run the trip to Spain has been offering trips to Cuba for the past 15 years. The company, WorldStrides, specializes in educational student travel and experiential learning across the globe.
The trip would certainly be the first of its kind in Pierson’s history.
Due to mounting tensions between the two neighboring nations, in January 1961, the United States closed its embassy in Havana and withdrew all diplomatic recognition of Cuba. By 1963, President John F. Kennedy had prohibited Americans from trading with or traveling to Cuba.
In the decades since, some Americans have managed to travel to the Caribbean island by way of Canada or other countries and with special State Department permission, but most travel from the United States to Cuba was forbidden until December 2014, when President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced they would work to normalize relations between the neighboring countries.
As long as enough students are interested, the field trip will take place during the school vacation in February 2016.
“We thought this was an extraordinary opportunity… to visit a place that has just opened up to the U.S. that people around the world have been traveling to,” said Mr. Solow.
When the board asked whether there are heightened concerns about security due to the diplomatic history, Mr. Solow replied, “Sure—and there are concerns about security whenever we travel to any of the places we go.”
Acknowledging that the situation makes the circumstances somewhat different, Mr. Solow said both the federal State Department and the Cuban Government have sanctioned the trip, “so to a certain extent the itinerary is an itinerary that’s shaped by both entities.”
Citizens of South American, European and other countries around the world have been continuously traveling to Cuba on a regular basis—without the heightened fear Americans have due to the strained relationship of the two countries for the past 50 years.
“It’s only because of the circumstances between our countries that this is something that has been off limits or not available to us,” said Mr. Solow.
Since the teachers know nothing firsthand about Cuba, as they do when taking students to Spain or Italy, they had some initial concerns about the quality of the country’s accommodations. WorldStride provided information on various hotels, however, and it turns out one is a sister hotel of where the students and teachers stayed while in Barcelona earlier this month—and appears to be the better of the pair.
“I think it’s a great thing…being able to go to a country like Cuba [at this time],” said David Diskin, a member of the school board. “Just when I graduated high school, I did a trip to China when China was [first] opened up [to Americans]. It’s like when you see a work of art in person,” he said, referring to what one student said was special about the Spain trip.
“When you see political persecution and the limitations a society like that has—you can’t believe it ’til you see it.”
“We’re hoping this is going to be both an extraordinary and unique experience because of what you’re talking about,” replied Mr. Solow. “I’m probably one of the only people in the room that’s old enough to remember vividly the Cuban Missile Crisis, so for me, this history of the two countries has some personal note, having lived through it when I was a kid—but yes, I think it would be interesting to get the different take on that event and also the Cuban revolution.”
The board agreed, and the field trip was approved.
Also at Monday’s meeting, the school board accepted a donation of $1,000 from the Sag Harbor American Music Festival. The money will go to the music department at Pierson Middle/High School.
“Not only do they put on wonderful events that are free for the community to attend and inspire our students, but they’ve also donated the money to go back to our music department,” Chris Tice, vice president of the school board, said of the festival, adding she knows the funds will be of good use with all the talented musicians at Pierson.
The Sag Harbor Board of Education will hold a budget hearing and educational meeting on Tuesday, May 5, in the library at Pierson Middle/High School, located at 200 Jermain Avenue in Sag Harbor. Also in the library, the Sag Harbor Elementary School PTA and the Pierson Middle and High School PTSA will host a Meet the Candidates Night to better introduce the community to the 2015 candidates for school board, at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 7.