Parents of students who canceled a spring break trip to Mexico say the sponsoring company is not refunding their money and had reassured them beforehand that their children would be safe from the coronavirus.
Yet 44 of the 70 young adults who took the trip returned to the U.S. with COVID-19, the disease associated with the virus, according to the University of Texas at 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 the 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 a 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 reassurances that the trip was safe, Greenblatt said.
"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 going to 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 who didn't know any better or hadn't thought it through.
"It's terrible to exploit kids like that," she said.
JusCollege, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Thursday, sent a statement to NBC News on Friday after publication saying, "We take the safety of our customers very seriously, and always follow U.S. government regulations and guidance from the state department when making travel recommendations."
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.
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A woman from New York, the 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 didn't say whether any of its students got sick.
"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," Sarah E. Scalese, a spokeswoman for Syracuse University, said in a statement.
A parent of a UT Austin student said that it was a struggle to get in contact with the company before the trip but that she finally got a response on Facebook Messenger.
The woman from New York said: "I wanted to know if they had contact with the [U.S.] Embassy and what would happen if they closed the border. 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 that they tracked down everyone on the chartered plane and tested them and that they are continuing to monitor the students.
Meanwhile, the parents and students who canceled want their money back, but it was unclear whether 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 had 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."
JusCollege said on Friday that refunds are "made at the discretion" of the third-party vendors the company works with.
"As a distributor of travel services, we are working tirelessly with airlines and hotels to get the best possible outcome for our customers - whether that's a credit or partial refund," a spokesperson for the company said in a statement. The company said its vendors are holding "the vast majority" of its customers' funds and apologized for the delays.
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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 his money back. He and other parents have tried to contact JusCollege on multiple platforms, and all he got 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 didn't 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."