By Jacob Eckeberger
With summer quickly approaching, you might already be planning through your next youth group trip or choir tour. But with COVID impacting so many areas of church ministry, it’s more important than ever to review your safety polices for travel to ensure they take into consideration this year’s new limitations.
For the past 26 years, we have helped mobilize youth groups from all across the U.S. to serve on domestic mission trips. We’re on our way to seeing 10,000 teenagers serving this summer, and we’re working with each youth group to help make sure they are prepared to travel and arrive safely. This article is a quick summary of what we’ll hope you consider for your own upcoming travel.
Before we get started, it’s important to recognize a couple things:
- Recommendations from health authorities are constantly changing. Be sure to review them regularly and adjust your plan as needed. Also, be sure to consider recommendations from your local health authority and those who represent wherever you’re traveling.
- Prioritizing health and safety is not about convenience. Any travel is putting yourself at some level of risk. It’s worth it to sacrifice a little comfort to ensure your group—and the community you’re entering—can stay as safe and healthy as possible.
Now, let’s jump into a few key pieces that you should consider for your ministry’s upcoming trip.
Set Expectations Far in Advance
If you haven’t already, be sure to communicate that things will be different this year. You’ll want everyone to know that they’ll have to pay attention to the new safety precautions, agree to them, and allow themselves to be flexible if they need to change before or during the trip.
The sooner you can communicate about these changes the better. But it’s not enough to just share them. You need to build in a process where your group can confirm that they are aware of the changes and agree to them.
Here are some helpful suggestions for how you can do that:
- Publish your policies and ask your group to review them before your next key planning date (registration deadline, deposit due date, team or parent meeting, etc.). For youth trips, make sure your youth and their parents or guardians sign-off on the new policies.
- Hold informational meetings that are focused on the policies and offer a time to respond to questions that might arise. After the meeting, publish the questions and responses as a resource for anyone who needs to review them later.
- Plan follow-up communication so that you can review your policies with any updated recommendations from health authorities. This will give you a chance to either reconfirm that the current policies still stand or update them with any necessary changes.
In our world of youth mission trips, we know that groups will be the most at risk to a COVID exposure while riding in their church van to one of our communities. So, we’re asking groups to focus on pre-trip precautions this year to make sure they are safe from the very beginning.
While we are not requiring vaccines before trips, we are asking groups to follow a health screening process for anyone preparing to come on a mission trip. That includes regularly monitoring everyone’s health, temperature, and potential exposure in the days leading up to a trip.
Here are a few questions to help you think through possible pre-trip precautions:
- Will you ask people to socially distance (wearing a mask in public, only meeting with people outside, not going into other’s homes, etc.) before a trip?
- Will you ask people to monitor their health and potential exposure 10 days before a trip?
- Will you ask people to provide proof of a negative COVID test?
- Will you ask people to be vaccinated before your trip?
Regardless of which of these you choose or don’t choose for your group, it’s important think through how else you can help keep your group safe leading up to your trip.
Travel as a Bubble
The safest thing you can do throughout your trip is to treat your group like a bubble. You travel together, you eat together, you sleep next to each other, and you do everything possible not to mix with other groups.
Here are a few helpful questions to think about how you’ll maintain your bubble:
- When might your bubble be in a space with other groups?
- Can you social distance (outside and with masks) when you are with other groups? If not, how will you help minimize the risk of exposure for you and them?
- When will you be just with your bubble? How can you still choose to maintain as much social distancing as possible even within your own group (6 feet apart while sleeping, etc.)?
Plan and Communicate Emergency Scenarios
What will you do if your group is exposed to COVID or if someone in your group shows symptoms during your trip? How will you continue to prioritize the safety of everyone in your group?
Your typical trip planning probably already includes how you will respond if there is an emergency on your trip. This is a great time to remind your group that you will also be planning emergency scenarios related to COVID. You might want to ask everyone coming on the trip to confirm that they have read and agreed to these emergency plans, as well.
Keep the Long-Term Goal in Mind
We’re preaching this to every group serving on our mission trips.
During your trip, your group might be tempted to ignore a policy or safety measure because of a momentary desire for comfort or an experience. But don’t jeopardize the long-term goal of protecting the safety of your group for something that is so temporary. It’s not worth the risk to your health or to the witness of your ministry.
Partner Up Where You Can
Don’t do your trip planning alone. We’re thrilled to be able to support youth groups looking to serve in the midst of COVID. If you’re thinking through a mission trip, even if you’re planning it on your own, reach out and let us know if we can help. Or, connect with other churches in your area to see what they are doing. With so many unknowns in this season, we can support each other more than ever.
Jacob Eckeberger is the vice president of marketing and customer engagement for YouthWorks, which provides Christ-centered mission trips for thousands of teenagers and adult leaders in communities across the U.S. and beyond, www.youthworks.com.