Quebec school board spends $280,000 to bring home students stranded in Guatemala

MONTREAL — After struggling for days to secure a flight home for a group of students on a humanitarian mission to Guatemala, a Quebec school board paid $280,000 for a chartered flight that scooped them out of the Central American country minutes before its border closed.

The 45 high school students and five teachers were on the last plane out of the Guatemala City airport Monday night, Helene Dumais, spokeswoman for the Commission scolaire des Grandes-Seigneuries, said Tuesday.

They landed Tuesday morning at Montreal-Trudeau International Airport, she said, less than one week after the group left to work in a centre for disabled people in the Guatemalan village of San Juan La Laguna.

Dumais said the cost of the flight, which comes to $5,600 a person, wasn’t a concern. “The order was to get them out as fast as possible,” she said in an interview. “So we did what was necessary.”

Reuters reported Monday that Guatemala planned to close its borders for two weeks in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on its territory. Guatemala has reported one death from the novel coronavirus.

Dumais said Guatemala wasn’t considered an at-risk country for COVID-19, so the school board and parents let the group leave last Thursday. But while the students were en route to Central America, the situation back home worsened dramatically and provincial governments advised against international travel.

She said the board tried “many, many” attempts to bring them back on a commercial flight in time, but it proved impossible. “We went from plan A to plan Z.”

Finally, on Monday afternoon, the board called the Montreal-area chartered airline company, Nolinor Aviation. Company president Marco Prud’Homme said, “every minute counted.”

Although his core business is chartering last-minute flights, he said domestic travel is always easier than having to secure authorization to fly over several countries — the United States, Mexico and Guatemala — and to obtain permission to land at a foreign airport.

Finally, after a refuelling stop in Miami, the plane landed in Guatemala, picked up the students and their teachers, and left the airport about 45 minutes before the border was set to close at midnight.

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