Students and chaperones on the Westford Academy trip to Italy over April break were confronted with exposure to bed bugs while traveling on at least two coach buses, forcing them to separate their belongings into trash bags to try to limit the spread of the parasitic insects. (Courtesy photo)

WESTFORD — An educational trip abroad turned sour for many Westford Academy students after the entire group was exposed to bed bugs multiple times on a bus in Italy.

A group of about 100 Westford Academy students were on an 11-day tour of the European country when they discovered that they had been exposed to bed bugs twice on two different coach buses that were each apparently infested with them, according to parents of students who were on the trip.

Bed bugs are small parasitic insects that feed on the blood of humans and animals as they sleep, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Their bites are known to cause itchiness, which can lead to a lack of sleep. Bed bugs are infamously difficult to get rid of when an infestation appears.

The trip had been managed by EF Educational Tours, an agency that regularly offers tours and trips for student groups. Some parents with children on the trip complained to The Sun that the organization was of little help after it became known that the group had been exposed to the bugs.

“EF Tours refuses to communicate with families or assist with establishing a protocol for families receiving the students and their belongings when they return from Italy with their infected luggage,” said an April 17 email from one parent, who wished to remain anonymous. “My daughter amongst others had live bugs crawling on them for hours while traveling on infested buses with nothing they could do until they arrived at their unsuspecting hotel! Despite repeated phone calls and requests to speak with an EF representative who can make decisions and disseminate information, I can only continue to have one way conversations in which my concerns can be documented.”

As a result of the exposure to bed bugs, many of the students and chaperones ended up having to throw away a lot of their luggage upon their return.

In an April 19 email before the students returned, an EF spokesperson said the company was sorry for the major disruption to the trip and that they were working with Westford Academy administrators to come up with a plan for a smooth return home. The spokesperson said EF also shared “detailed guidance” from the Department of Public Health with the families the previous evening.

“We are grateful for the school’s collaboration in arranging indoor changing stations away from their primary facilities for the students when they arrive home; and we will reimburse the school for any associated costs,” the EF spokesperson said. “Every student has travel insurance, and we are in touch with the group’s travel insurance provider. We understand that coverage is available for damaged belongings that need to be destroyed. We shared this update yesterday evening and remain committed to working with families during this process. Finally, we are working with the chaperones and our students and their families to provide additional support and compensation for other concerns related to the group’s overall tour experience following their return home.”

Westford Academy Principal Dan Twomey said on April 19 that the affected students would be allowed to return to school on Monday, April 22.

“We have been in communication with the Westford Board of Health and we will be following their guidelines that were provided to the parents/caregivers to remedy their belongings,” said Twomey.

Another parent, Angela Crawford, said that despite EF promising to arrange for indoor changing stations, there seemed to be little space for the more than 100 trip-goers to work with.

“They didn’t do much. They had plastic bags to put contaminated luggage in, and the school opened up the fieldhouse bathrooms so they could change in them,” said Crawford, whose daughter, Cammie, was on the trip. “We ended up just taking her to the back of the car, unpacking her suitcase and throwing away anything disposable. We just held up some blankets so she could change behind the car.”

The worst part, Crawford said, was watching one of the teacher chaperones leaving with only a small plastic bag remaining of his belongings.

“I feel really bad for the teachers in all of this. We had a teacher emailing parents saying they were exhausted and needed help,” said Crawford. “None of us are mad at the school, it is more that the organization took so long to respond to the problem.”

Crawford said that in their case, her daughter paid for the entire $4,000 trip with her own money.

In another statement after the students had returned home, an EF spokesperson said the organization was working with families to collect documentation to support insurance claims for lost items and for possible compensation for on-tour disruptions that were unrelated to bed bug exposure.

“Travelers will file a claim directly with the insurance claims administrator. The DPH guidance we shared with families last week provided information on how to handle exposed items, including possible sanitization and discard methods. If travelers determine that any items were unsalvageable, we understand that coverage is available for damaged belongings that need to be destroyed through the travelers’ insurance policy,” said the spokesperson. “We have let families know that we will be sending the necessary documentation from the bus vendor for the claims administrator in the coming days so that they can submit claims for reimbursement as needed.

“Then regarding the group’s return, we collaborated with the school on the Saturday night set up and we’ve offered to reimburse the school for any associated costs,” the spokesperson added.

After the students had returned, Twomey did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Sun.

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