Greg B. Smith and Yoav Gonen for THE CITY.
Originally posted on March 4, by THE CITY.
A New York City public school teacher who spent February winter break in Italy is now under a two-week self-quarantine, on the advice of the city Department of Health & Mental Hygiene after experiencing possible coronavirus symptoms.
In between, the teacher spent several days last week in a classroom with children, THE CITY has learned — while the city Department of Education issued coronavirus precautions only for educators and students who’d traveled in China.
The teacher sought a coronavirus test on Monday after contacting a state hotline, but reported being turned down by a doctor.
Meanwhile, four other New York City public school teachers who reported they’d traveled to coronavirus hot zones in the last few weeks and are displaying potential symptoms have reached out to their union, the United Federation of Teachers.
The union told them to seek medical treatment.
Three weeks after the first suspected coronavirus cases first surfaced in New York City, the Department of Education is still “developing procedures for notification and remediation of buildings that have been the site of suspected infections,” the union says.
The urgency of the situation was heightened Wednesday when state officials revealed that the wife and two children of a 50-year-old Westchester lawyer who’d tested positive for the illness also were infected.
One of the children, a 20-year-old son, attends Yeshiva University, while a 14-year-old daughter attends the SAR Academy in Riverdale, The Bronx. All are in quarantine at home while the father is in serious condition at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan.
On Tuesday, Yeshiva issued a statement asserting that it was “disinfecting all relevant common areas,” but by Wednesday the school was temporarily shuttered. City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene inspectors were on campus to identify any “close contacts” with the student — and two such contacts had been sent to Bellevue Hospital for testing.
In a news conference Wednesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo spelled out the effort to track down anyone who’s come in contact with the infected family as “doing the best you can to keep the circle as tight as possible.”
And late Tuesday Success Academy, one of the city’s biggest charter schools, instructed all students and staff who’d been in countries designated by the CDC as hot zones — including Italy, Iran and China — to “study or work from home for two weeks before returning to school.”
On Wednesday, New York City high school and college students started a petition to close down schools due to the coronavirus spread. Students at city public schools, Columbia University, New York University, the New School and Baruch College are participating.
As of Wednesday morning, a month after coronavirus began to spread in China and two weeks after it started showing up in other countries, the city Department of Education had yet to develop a plan for what to do if one of its teachers or students tests positive for the illness.
Refused a Test
The teacher who tried to get tested was visiting the Veneto region of Italy in February, at the time the first coronavirus cases surfaced there. The teacher flew back to New York in the last week of the month and, displaying no symptoms, returned to the classroom.
The educator spoke to THE CITY on the condition of anonymity, and THE CITY has withheld identifying details.
Soon after the teacher experienced severe headaches, a sore throat, fever and body aches. They called the state Department of Health hotline and were told to seek medical advice.
The teacher went to a hospital, telling the doctor about the trip to Italy. As of Tuesday, Italy has logged more than 2,500 coronavirus cases, including at least 79 deaths. The outbreak surfaced Feb. 20 in the cities of Lombardy and Veneto, in the region that also includes Venice.
Although the teacher had been in a coronavirus hot zone and displayed the symptoms, the doctor said because the teacher did not have a compromised immune system and was not elderly, the teacher could not receive the required CDC test.
However, the doctor provided the teacher with a city Department of Health & Mental Health letter stating that the patient needed to self-quarantine for two weeks. The teacher forwarded the letter to school officials and began the quarantine.
It’s not clear what, if anything, DOE has done with this information — including whether the students in the teacher’s class are being monitored and whether the teacher’s colleagues have been notified.
The teacher is not alone in facing difficulties accessing a test.
A CUNY professor told THE CITY that she and her teenaged son sat next to a woman sneezing and coughing during a flight home from the San Francisco area a week ago. At first they felt fine, and the son went to his high school as usual. But soon they both experienced difficulty breathing.
Because they hadn’t been in the hot zones where the virus is present, the professor was told they could not receive a CDC test. Ultimately, the high schooler returned to class after his condition improved.
‘No Plans to Close’
On Wednesday, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza was expected to attend a briefing with Mayor Bill de Blasio to update the public on the city’s efforts to stay on top of the coronavirus spread.
A day earlier, DOE spokesperson Danielle Filson was unable to provide specifics when THE CITY asked to describe the agency’s protocols to investigate cases where students or teachers who are potentially infected and have attended classes.
Instead, she said DOE was “in close contact with the city’s Health Department regarding potential impact to school communities” and referenced “updated guidance” released Tuesday instructing schools to maintain adequate supplies of soap and paper towels and advise teachers and parents to wash their hands often.
This advice does not include Italy and Iran — only China — in the list of hot spots that should trigger a request for a CDC test.
“There are no plans to close schools at this time, and any changes will be determined by public health experts,” Filson wrote.
Alison Gendar, a UFT spokesperson, said the union is awaiting word from the DOE on its plans, including a protocol school nurses have been given “on how to handle suspected cases in their buildings.”