On Saturday, April 9, yearbook and newspaper adviser Tiffany Kopcak received a text that she had been dreading. The flight she and her nine students were heading to the airport to board had been canceled and they were stranded in LA.
It was after 7 p.m. PST. They had no hotel. No flights. And no solutions.
“I got that text from Spirit and I knew what it was before I even opened it. I was really mad and scared because everything was unknown, and I was responsible for these kids,” Kopcak said.
The expenses to fly home would be one of the most time-consuming and frustrating parts of this trip. With additional nights in the hotel, food, and new plane tickets, the cost of the trip was doubled.
This would only be the beginning of a stressful and complicated venture that would last two days and cost over $4,000 more than originally planned.
The nine students and two teachers were in LA to attend JEA/NSPA Spring National High School Journalism Convention. The conference lasted two days and included a book signing, yearbook workshops, and an awards ceremony. The 2021 yearbook editors; seniors Marissa Hamlett, Brian Guan, Nina Boligitz, and Grace Park – received the Pacemaker Award from the National Scholastic Press Association, which is the highest award that can be given to any student publication. This is the third time Forge has earned the recognition.
Earning the award got them to LA, but the sessions, taught by journalism advisers nationwide, were the important part.
“Sessions were fairly lengthy. I think I took well over 10 pages of notes because of the vital information,” Talon editor Will Hagaman (‘23) said. “I hope to bring that back to this publication because it was all really important information I learned. I’m very glad I can bring him back here to Virginia and possibly initiate some of those ideas in this publication.”
The workshops were the main part of the conference with separate sessions focusing on things like team building and social media management. It brought together student journalists from all over the country to share knowledge and learn from experts.
“I felt like my work was all looking the same, and I was able to get help from other people and see different perspectives. I thought it was interesting seeing how people handled their workloads,” Shelby Jaunal (‘24) said.
When they weren’t at the conference, they were busy exploring the city. This time was usually used eating at street vendors or exploring local landmarks like the Griffiths Observatory and the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
“Outside of the conference, we did lots and lots of exploring and my feet were absolutely killing me. I was mostly interested in the nature side of it all, especially when we went and watched the sunset behind the Hollywood sign. I was stressed from the trip but watching the sunset made me feel okay,” Destiny Pacchelli (‘22) said.
It was on the last sign-seeing activity at The Last Bookstore LA when Kopcak got the text.
Kopcak attempted to call Spirit Airlines but would be waiting for at least two hours to reach anyone. Meanwhile, students contacted their parents and Kopcak got them together on a Google Meet to frantically try to find a way to get their kids home.
“I’m really thankful my mom stayed up. I felt so bad, but instead of her getting stressed she stayed up and made sure I wasn’t stressed out. I know for sure that she didn’t go to sleep because she was probably a nervous wreck, but in the end, she was more worried about me getting home safe and in a timely manner,” Nina Boligtz (‘22) said.
After finally reaching someone at Spirit, Kopcak was informed that the only option that they had to get close to home would be to fly to Philadelphia on Wednesday, 4 days later.
Since Spirit Airlines couldn’t get them home, they had to find another way. They booked new tickets on their personal credit cards on two different flights.
“The website would only let us book in a group of nine. I wanted to make sure as many kids got home as soon as possible, so we booked D-Top with eight students on a Delta flight through JFK, and then booked one for myself and another student. It about broke me to break us up, but it’s what we had to do,” Kopcak said. “As we kept trying to book tickets, they would sell out. Decisions had to be made fast.”
The cost for the additional tickets was $4174.
But that wasn’t the only cost created by the cancellation: dinner, Uber, parking, and extra nights in the hotel. None of it was planned, and no one knew how it was going to be paid for. The teachers will be reimbursed for their expenses by the school using a combination of funds raised by the yearbook students through book and ad sales and money provided by SCPS.
They’re still hoping for reimbursement from Spirit.
This story was originally published on The Talon on May 10, 2022.