On a cold November morning in D.C., a group of ninth-graders from Knoxville, Iowa, huddled together on a shady path near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to listen to Sandy Brooks, their guide from EF Educational Tours. The 37-degree forecast did not deter a handful of boys from wearing shorts. About 50 yards behind the tour guide, a group of similar-looking students in matching white shirts ascended the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

“Everybody’s gotta scooch because this is a working sidewalk,” Brooks said, corralling fidgeting teens and the chaperones who were watching over their flock from the rear. A Southwest Airlines plane thundered overhead, all but drowning out the guide’s request. She told the kids to get used to it. “This is a flight path for Reagan National Airport,” she said, standing on a park bench so everyone could see and hear her better. Moments later, another plane roared past.

Tourism is gradually returning to D.C., a destination for visitors who come to sample the city’s history, architecture and network of free museums. The sight of Godzilla hoodies and neon lanyards on the National Mall spoke to another comeback: the return of the D.C. school trip.

As vaccination rates rise and coronavirus cases decline, life in D.C. has started to look more how it did before the pandemic. That includes gaggles of middle-schoolers roaming around reopened museums and monuments, a welcome return for a local tourism industry devastated by a lack of visitors. According to an economic impact study shared by Destination DC, visitor spending between March 2020 and March 2021 plummeted by $6.1 billion, and the city lost $477 million in tax revenue as a result. In 2020, D.C. lost an estimated $370 million from canceled conferences alone.

For decades, countless students, teachers and parents have come to D.C. from all over the country to learn about their nation’s beginnings. The pandemic took that opportunity away, but interest in the rite of passage has not waned. EF Educational Tours reports it has seen record demand for 2023 trips.

The 40 or so students in Brooks’s EF tour group were originally scheduled to visit D.C. the year before, when they were in eighth grade. “Covid hit my seventh grade year,” student Madi Day-Suhr said. “We weren’t sure about what was going to happen. We kept postponing.”

Knoxville Middle School teacher Sara Finnegan offered to take her former students — including her twin sons, now high school freshmen — this fall.

“It’s kind of surreal,” student Janie Maasdam said. “It feels like it’s just like one big adventure.”

Their journey began with a rough call time for the flights from Iowa to Baltimore.

“I woke up at like 4:25 because we had to be at the airport by 5:30 and I still had stuff to pack,” Maasdam said. “I know some people get up early for sports, but all of my practices are after school, so I’ve never really done that. … It was definitely a smack to the face.”

Some people had their flights delayed, while others made it to D.C. without any real drama (unless you count the social drama, like who was being annoying on the plane). Brooks adjusted their itinerary accordingly.

Improvising is in the job description for a seasoned tour guide, but the pandemic has added new hurdles. Brooks, who started guiding groups again in June, said the biggest issue has been finding food options to accommodate big groups when so many restaurants close earlier than before.

“I took 50 kids to Shake Shack last night — imagine that,” Brooks said.

Brooks said she also misses some tour opportunities that are still off the table. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is not accepting large groups because of coronavirus concerns, and tours of the Capitol have been paused since the pro-Trump riot on Jan. 6.

Students are still finding ways to have a good time in D.C. Maasdam, for example, splurged on two orders of fries and a Sugar Plum Fairy milkshake at Shake Shack the other night, which “is probably not the best decision considering I’m lactose intolerant,” she said.

“It feels really fun, it doesn’t really feel like school,” student Ezra Schmidt said. “The only thing that feels like school is you’re doing it with your friends, which is a good thing.”

Like many visitors, Schmidt and his classmates were surprised at how big the monuments look in person compared with how they look in photos and movies. “And you can see the symbolism in the details a lot better when you’re there in person,” he said.

Or as student Kyl Bauer summed it up, D.C. turned out to be “epic,” he said. “I was going on about how all these memorials feel like they’re made for giants, which I mean, in theory, I guess they are. The statues inside are big.”

At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, some students observed the names of the war’s casualties. Some looked for family members and connections they knew were etched into the black granite.

“A lot of the bonding is fun, but I think [the Vietnam Memorial] was probably the best time so far,” Day-Suhr said. “It gave us a lot of mixed emotions, like my heart was heavy.”

Then it was off to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and around the Tidal Basin to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial. After the teens rubbed the bronze sculpture ears of Roosevelt’s dog Fala for good luck, they power walked to the Jefferson Memorial. They had managed to score hard-to-get tickets to the National Museum of African American History and Culture and didn’t have time to waste.

“The African American Museum here — it is phenomenal so we’re not going to race through this next section, but we’re also not going to lollygag,” Brooks told the group. “Remember, we got into the dillydally talk last night? No lollygagging, no dillydallying.”

On the bus, the tour continued along with teenage shenanigans.

“Elliott, all 17 of your girlfriends are calling you from the back of the bus,” a student said.

Shenanigans, of course, are part of the package of a school trip. Aside from the serious educational moments at memorials and inside museums, a D.C. school trip is memorable for the lighter parts, such as the fun of staying in a hotel with your friends and classmates.

“The first thing we did [at the hotel] was set up dorm rules,” student Jason Vinsick said. “No singing, no FaceTime, no listening to music or videos without headphones.”

Those tempted to test the dorm rules risked getting kicked out of the dorm (although leaving assigned rooms at night was forbidden). The excitement kept some kids up late, although there was a price to pay in the morning.

We gotta wake up at 6,” Bauer said. “We meant to set our alarm for 5:55, but our alarm did not go off. I finally woke up after Tim knocked on the door like 15 times. I definitely felt bad about that.”

The in-person adventure was a welcome foil to the mostly virtual doldrums of the previous year.

“[Virtual school] was definitely depressing in its own way because … it made us all inactive, we were pretty much just wallowing in our own rooms,” Vinsick said. “Nobody did schoolwork, I hate to admit it. But doing it over Zoom is pretty tough.”

Groups like Brooks’s benefit more of D.C. than just the tour companies and museum gift shops. Seeing their return is a huge relief for people like William, a weekend T-shirt vendor on Constitution Avenue who spoke on the condition that his last name be withheld to protect his full-time job.

William said that before the pandemic, around 75 buses would come through the area a day, and “the kids buy.” He hopes that as more children get vaccinated, more parents will let them travel on school trips to D.C.

“That’s what we need, those buses,” he said. “Not just us, but everybody here eats off tourism.”

About this story

Editing by Amanda Finnegan and Gabe Hiatt. Photo editing by Monique Woo and Annaliese Nurnberg. Copy editing by Paola Ruano. Design and development by Katty Huertas.