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Government Shutdown Could Spoil School Field Trips

It's springtime, and you know what that means for schools. Well, besides standardized testing, it's field-trip season, of course. But we're likely to have a lot of disappointed students if Republicans and Democrats in Washington can't iron out a budget deal this week.

Manassas.JPG

If they can't, as some analysts predict, the federal government is expected to shut down this Friday at midnight. And that means all kinds of popular attractions for school groups (not to mention the general public) will be off limits. The Smithsonian museums. The Washington Monument. The Statue of Liberty. The National Zoo. Independence Hall. And plenty of national parks, including some 25 national Civil War battlefields, from Gettysburg and Manassas to Vicksburg. All of these would not be open to the public, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Perhaps most notable is Fort Sumter National Monument, near Charleston, S.C. After all, 150 years ago next Tuesday, April 12, the first shots of the Civil War were fired there. This could pose some very practical challenges for the big commemoration planned in Charleston starting this weekend, as many of the events are apparently tied to the national monument. Here's what The State newspaper from South Carolina had to say. Also, it's a rather interesting coincidence that the shutdown could coincide with the Civil War anniversary.

Just yesterday, I saw firsthand several yellow school buses at Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia, which I was visiting to observe 6th graders at Stonewall Middle School working on a set of short videos they're producing about the Civil War. (Keep an eye out for more on that project, spearheaded by The Journey Through Hallowed Ground, as part of our upcoming coverage of teaching the Civil War, pegged to the 150th anniversary.) Also, school tours at Gettysburg National Military Park are booked months in advance, with groups coming every day in the spring.

"We still believe that there is the opportunity for Congress to avoid a government shutdown, but are working to prepare for all possible scenarios," Kendra Barkoff, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, told me in an email. "Visitors and potential visitors to national parks, wildlife refuges, and other public lands should be advised that, in the event of a government shutdown, the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management will close and secure park, refuge, and visitor facilities on public lands."

She added: "Visitor activities that require a permit, including public events, will not be allowed or will be canceled or postponed. Visitor centers will be closed and access to park areas denied, including the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, Independence Hall, Alcatraz, and the Washington Monument."

Nancy Gray, a spokeswoman for the Fort Sumter National Monument, deferred to the Interior Department press office for all questions related to the impact of the government shutdown on what's planned for Charleston, but did say that a host of events involving the Park Service are planned for April 9-16 in Charleston. And she said the park was "continuing the planning process" for the commemoration.

History teacher and Civil War blogger Kevin Levin said the absence of the National Park Service from the Charleston commemoration would be a big loss.

"No other institution has done more to expand the public's understanding of the Civil War than the National Park Service," he told me by email. "The possibility of a government shutdown will likely prevent the NPS from taking part in [the] Fort Sumter commemoration. ... In doing so, it will leave the responsibility of interpreting this event to organizations that are ill-equipped to present this rich history to the general public."

By the way, in case you're wondering what impact a government shutdown might have on schools more broadly, check out my colleague Alyson Klein's post over at Politics K-12. As she notes, "most schools and districts wouldn't feel an immediate pinch."

Photo: A statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson stands on the Civil War battlefield at Manassas, Va. Chris Sullivan/AP

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