Parents of students who canceled a spring break trip to Mexico say the sponsoring company is refusing to refund their money and had assured them beforehand that their children would be safe from coronavirus.
Yet 44 of the 70 young adults who took the trip returned to the U.S. with COVID-19, according to the University of Texas Austin. The group traveled on a chartered plane to Cabo San Lucas about two weeks ago with JusCollege, a company based in Nevada that plans all-inclusive spring break trips.
Originally, far more than 70 students were supposed to go, and not all of them attended UT Austin. As coronavirus closed in on the U.S., parents around the country weighed whether to send their children on spring break with JusCollege.
Karen Greenblatt’s daughter, a sophomore at Indiana University, was planning to go on the trip with her sorority sister, but the Greenblatts grew concerned as they watched the news and learned of the virus’ rapid spread. They reached out to JusCollege, which responded with assurances the trip was safe, Greenblatt said.
The company did not reply to multiple requests for comment.
“We believe that there is no compelling reason to reconsider travel to Mexico at this time due to Coronavirus,” the company wrote to Greenblatt on March 11 in an email she shared with NBC News. “We believe that our destinations remain among the safest and most enjoyable destinations in the world to visit right now.”
Gleenblatt said she was taken aback.
“I couldn’t believe they were gonna take college kids outside the country at that point,” she said. “They had ‘no compelling reason.’ I’m like, ‘Seriously…no compelling reason?’”
She said she believes JusCollege was banking on kids to go who didn’t know any better or hadn’t thought it through.
“It’s terrible to exploit kids like that,” she said.
Gleenblatt said the company seemed unprepared for the pandemic and had no contingency plans, a view shared by three other parents whose children canceled their trips. The families asked not to be named for fear of being harassed online.
One New York mother of a Syracuse University student said she felt “left out in the cold” when she asked JusCollege officials what their plans were if students got sick.
“JusCollege is preying on ignorant seniors that just want to go away for their last hooray and get drunk,” she said.
Her daughter and many of her friends canceled, but Syracuse University confirmed that some of its students did go on the trip in which the UT Austin students fell ill. Syracuse did not say whether any of their students were sickened.
“In partnership with JusCollege and in alignment with CDC guidelines, any of our students who participated in this trip were urged to self-quarantine at home for 14 days from their date of arrival in the U.S. as a precaution against additional exposure,” said Sarah E. Scalese, a spokeswoman for Syracuse University, in a statement.
One parent of a UT Austin student said it was a struggle to get in contact with the company before the trip, but she finally received a response on Facebook Messenger.
“I wanted to know if they had contact with the (U.S.) Embassy, and what would happen if they closed the border,” said the woman from New York. “They had nothing, absolutely nothing.”
Her daughter canceled, but she said she understood why some students went.
“They didn’t really have the option of staying with the dorms,” she said. “Their only options were to go home, where they believed they were more likely to get the virus, or to go on these trips.”
Public health officials in Austin say they tracked down everyone on the chartered plane and tested them and are continuing to monitor the students.
Meantime, the parents and students who canceled want their money back, but it was unclear if they would get it.
In an email to Greenblatt on March 19, JusCollege said it was working with third-party vendors to get back to her with “possible refund or credit options within the next 14 days.”
But two days earlier the company told her in an emailthat “refunds will not be available until a later time, but we will reimburse any refunds that are provided by the airlines and hotels if and when they are processed.”
Although costs vary, students and their parents can spend thousands of dollars on such trips.
Gary Dubofsky, the father of an Indiana University student, said he doubts he will ever get the money back. He and other parents have tried to contact JusCollege on multiple platforms, and all he received was a “canned” response via Instagram direct messaging.
“It’s like, ‘Yeah, we took your money and now we don’t exist anymore,'” said Dubofsky, who lives in Illinois.
Now he’s out $2,100. He said he believes over 170 Indiana University students canceled, including the company’s own interns from the school. Indiana University did not respond to a request for comment.
“These people are sitting on hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said of JusCollege. “They tell you to go to a trip insurance. Well, trip insurance is great until it’s a pandemic. You’re totally screwed all the way around.”