Schools and residential trip providers fear they will no longer be covered by insurance for visits cancelled because of coronavirus.
After changes last week, advice on the Association of British Insurers website no longer says schools will be covered for the loss of trips.
It now says schools should “seek a refund from the venue”.
The ABI says the advice was amended to reflect exclusions in policies as the pandemic continues.
Outdoor education centres across the UK have been closed since March under government coronavirus restrictions.
Last week providers wrote to the prime minister asking him to save outdoor education, which they said “faces an existential threat”.
Advising schools to ask for refunds rather than claim on their insurance for cancelled trips is another blow, according to Vanessa Fox, chief executive of the charity Farms for City Children.
Ms Fox says she spotted changes to the ABI’s Frequently Asked Questions section last week after following a link from the Department for Education website.
She told the BBC she had copied and pasted the section into an email to a colleague on 6 October.
At the time it promised: “In general, most schools will be covered under their insurance policy.”
The guidance advised schools to first seek a refund from the venue or tour provider – but said if the venue could no longer host the trip “because of official government guidance, the closure of the venue, or their reluctance to accept school trips due to their stated concerns about the spread of coronavirus, the school will be covered”.
However, she says the following day, the mention of cover had disappeared, with the answer just saying “the school should seek a refund from the venue”.
“For the ABI to have changed that advice and put the burden on us is so disappointing,” she said.
“Thousands of children who have spent months in isolation, including many who live in high-rise flats with no outdoor space to play, have already missed out on the week of discovery at our farms, and now their schools and parents face having to shoulder the cost…
“We would like to see the ABI do the right thing, honour the cover that schools believed they had in place, and help ensure the outdoor learning sector survives so that children across the country can look forward to spending time exploring the great outdoors, reconnecting with their peers, and reigniting their passion for learning.”
Farms for City Children was set up 45 years ago by War Horse author Michael Morpurgo.
For some young visitors, their week-long trip to one of the charity’s three working farms might be the first time they have ever left their neighbourhood, let alone fed chickens or helped harvest their own dinner, says Ms Fox.
The charity pays 60% of the cost but schools and families must find the rest.
Ms Fox says a quarter of the schools who had booked visits over the past seven months have managed to secure insurance payouts.
Most of the others have rescheduled and she is hoping business will pick up in the spring, but says she is “very nervous about how quickly it’s coming round”.
Ed and Sara Jones, directors of Rhos y Gwaliau outdoor centre in Snowdonia, have refunded all fees and deposits but say their business interruption insurance does not cover a pandemic.
“The majority of schools have not been able to claim on their insurance policies either,” they say.
“Schools are now rebooking in the hope that we will be open for 2021 but are worried about their money being safe.
“We are not taking deposits and we have had to rewrite our booking conditions to offer a full refund if Covid-19 forces the trip to be cancelled.
“This is the only way we can reassure our customers that they can book in confidence.
“We are doing the best by our customers but who is looking out for us?”
In a statement, the ABI said: “If schools are planning trips they should check current government advice, the refund policies with venues or the tour operator, and the scope of their insurance cover.
“In the event of cancellation, schools should first seek a refund from the venue or tour operator.
“For any cost that cannot be recovered, schools should check the type and scope of their insurance cover. Claims will be paid if policy terms are met, however there may be Covid-19 exclusions in place for trips booked after the pandemic was declared.
“Where a tour operator has taken out a group travel insurance policy instead of the school, it is likely that the tour operator will be responsible to cover cancellations due to a change in government advice, as this will be considered a business risk which that company has taken on.”