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Walden discusses China trip in visit to St. Mary's

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden paid a visit to Medford's St. Mary's School Friday to meet about 70 students and teachers whom he worked to bring home from China after they were quarantined twice in July for the H1N1 flu virus.

"I have a terrific staff who works really odd hours as your parents did because of the time zone differences," the Republican from Hood River said at a school assembly in the morning.

The school visit was in conjunction with a Southern Oregon sweep Friday meant to touch base with constituents and take a look at the Deer Ridge Fire site, which began Sept. 21 and charred nearly 650 acres on Roxy Ann Peak in east Medford.

Walden's office was in constant touch with the U.S. Embassy in Beijing during the quarantine of the private Catholic school students, said St. Mary's Principal Frank Phillips.

The spread of the virus had threatened to keep all of the students in China indefinitely, Phillips said.

Walden's office and the U.S. Embassy helped convince the Chinese government to allow healthy students and chaperones to return home Aug. 1, while 12 others remained behind in quarantine until Aug. 8, Phillips said.

Phillips said it was unclear how long the group would have had to stay in China if the healthy ones had not been cleared to depart Aug. 1.

"The thing that was frustrating was we were in China, and we couldn't leave the hotel," said freshman Sean Senogles. "We had a computer and TV, but we could have easily done that at home. The time we did spend touring in between the quarantines was really interesting and informative."

The students left July 14 for China as a part of a goodwill-building program by the Chinese government meant to promote Chinese language and culture.

St. Mary's last year was named North America's first Confucius Classroom as a part of the program, receiving an annual $50,000 grant from the Chinese Ministry of Education as well as Chinese instructors from China to teach Mandarin.

Walden commended the school for its Mandarin language program, emphasizing that such programs are needed to keep Americans competitive in a global economy in which China is a major contender.

"You are very fortunate you go to St. Mary's where you have a very unique opportunity to learn about Chinese culture and language," Walden said. "This is a wonderful partnership, an essential partnership."

St. Mary's has offered Mandarin to its pupils since fall 2006.

The school's partnership with the Chinese government was the catalyst for the language being offered for the first time this fall at Southern Oregon University and interest in Mandarin has been growing around the county.

Students in first through fifth grades at Ashland's Siskiyou School, a small private Waldorf school, receive Chinese language instruction.

The Southern Oregon Education Service District plans to offer Mandarin for third- and sixth-graders next year in some public schools and expand to other grades in subsequent years.

St. Mary's students Friday presented Walden with a photograph of them taken while they were sequestered at a Beijing hotel and donning surgical masks and gloves to imitate Michael Jackson's "Thriller" dance as a means of entertainment during their initial week-long quarantine.

"We will put this up," Walden declared; then quipped, "I think it'll scare people away."

The students also were quarantined again in Dengfeng after more students fell ill.

"I thought it was very nice of him to come and talk," said senior Danielle Shubat who quarantined on the trip. "It was hard for teachers to tell us what was going when we were in quarantine because the teachers didn't know what was going on. After I found out what he'd done, I was more grateful."

The Medford students' quarantine was publicized worldwide, including on BBC and MSNBC, among others.

"Although the trip was not exactly what you set out on, I think you learned more than you imagined about how government works and how people come together in a time of trouble," Walden said.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 776-4459 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.