For the students at the John D. O’Bryant High School, a school-sponsored trip to Europe has become a rite of passage.
While it was bad enough that last spring’s trip – set for April vacation week— was cancelled by BPS officials in March because of the pandemic, what happened to the 44 students and their families who saved and scrimped to pay for the adventure was much worse: They have yet to get most of their money back, despite having purchased insurance.
Mya Bent Monegro, an 11th grader at the O’Bryant, was excited about the trip, which had on the schedule visits for her and her classmates to Rome, Geneva, Paris, Caen, and London. It was a costly venture: Each student paid $3,600 to book it and $45 to insure the booking, no small task for many of the kids from working-class families in city neighborhoods.
“When the trip was cancelled, I thought it would be fine because the insurance should have covered anything that happened,” said Monegro. “There was a global pandemic and nobody could control that.”
But, like her peers and their families, Monegro is upset that she has to date received only a partial refund $899 or 25 percent of the $3,600. Each family was issued an initial payout of $818 in September and another $81 in October, the result of months of discussion involving the school district, the state attorney general’s office, and Augusta Musico, owner of All My World Travel, the Boston agency that booked the trip.
When Musico filed a group insurance claim on behalf of the families with Halsbury Travel, the agency based in the United Kingdom that she partnered with to book the trip, Halsbury denied the claim.
Carolina Monegro De Bent, Mya’s mother, then filed a complaint with Attorney General Maura Healey’s office in an effort to recover some of their money.
“Even if we can’t get anything back from the international portion, Ms. Musico should be held liable,” said Bent. “It’s her travel agency that the school went through.”
According to the Secretary of State’s corporate database, Musico dissolved her East Boston-based travel company on Sept. 8. She also hired an attorney, Jeffrey Ment, a managing partner at Ment Law Group, to help her negotiate with Halsbury Travel.
“From what we know, the insurance company is taking the position that for a few reasons they don’t have to cover the claim,” Ment explained in a phone call with the Reporter.
“First, they claim that they only provide insurance for residents of the United Kingdom. Second, they claim that they don’t cover claims for trips that were cancelled for disinclination to travel at a time when the world hadn’t completely shut down yet. So, it seems to have to do with the timing of the cancellation, and the decision by the school district to cancel the trip rather than have the travel company cancel it.”
In an interview last week with the Reporter, Musico said: “I tried everything to get the refund from my correspondent in England, Halsbury Travel. Also, my lawyer tried to get all of the refunds from airline companies, hotels, etc. But I didn’t have success because they don’t want to give me the refund. I gave the students and the families what I had in my pockets and then I closed everything because I don’t have any more money. What more can I do?
“I’m really sorry, I’m so frustrated, and I’ve suffered too much,” said Musico, who says she is now on unemployment. “I closed everything because I don’t have any more money. Now we are trying to speak with the mayor to try to help them. But I can’t do anything more,” said Musico, sounding distressed.
Sally Johnson, whose daughter also signed up for the trip, paid the full cost, something most of the other families weren’t able to do.
“The biggest thing for me is that this is not a school of rich kids,” said Johnson. “A lot of them saved themselves and worked their own jobs to get the money and buy the insurance. From my perspective, we were working with a travel agent based in Boston. I don’t know what the technicality is there that they’ve managed to work out. It’s just so unfortunate that everything went wrong.”
Robert Carr, the father of an 11th grader, said that the insurance policy secured for the trip “had so many different holes in it, basically absolving them from any potential trip cancellation, that it wasn’t even worth the $40 that we paid for it.” At this point, he said, the only option the families may have to recoup funds from Halsbury would be to individually hire attorneys in the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile, Johnson has taken up the task of drafting a GoFundMe page, which cannot be associated with the O’Bryant School for legal reasons and has not gone live yet, in the hopes of raising money to help students and families regain some of what they have lost.
“If there is some money in a fund somewhere that’s meant to help out underprivileged kids, this would be one of many good ways to use that money,” said Carr. “That’s really not something that anybody has the financial capability or will to do and at this point it looks to me like the avenue we go is either media attention that lights a fire under the mayor’s office or we do a GoFundMe Campaign and try to raise money from donors.”
He added: “Moving forward, if BPS does decide to run anymore trips, every trip should be bonded and insured at a million dollars to ensure that this never happens again.”
When asked about the cancellation and the resulting issues, a spokesperson for the Boston Public Schools said the department “has been exploring various ways in which these families might recover some or all of the expenses.
“We are also working to create a more centralized process for reviewing and vetting travel providers for future domestic and international trips,” the spokesperson said.
Beyond that, Healey’s office confirmed that it has logged nine complaints about All My World Travel’s role in the O’Bryant trip, but did not say if the staff will pursue the issue.
A spokesperson said that Healey’s office has received more than 4,000 complaints related to travel agencies and the pandemic and noted that the attorney has prioritized securing refunds and mediating complaints with domestic travel companies, resulting in roughly $5.8 million recovered for consumers with complaints related to other travel companies.
Mya Bent Monegro said that the ordeal has been a tough lesson for her and her classmates. “I would be more cautious and read the fine lines of all the policies to see what exactly the insurance covers to decide if I really want to go on a trip in the future,” she said. “My family doesn’t have $3,600 to spare, but we were working hard this year. My mom had to take extra shifts. We stopped going out or buying things that we didn’t really need — like clothes or fast food.”
Her mom says the experience has been disruptive for her daughter during an already challenging time.
“Everyone is upset. Mya is upset because she felt like it’s her fault that I am losing the money. She’s still fighting hard at school to keep up her grades without letting it bother her too much— but it does bother her. We can see it.”