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A man riding the subway in Brooklyn wears a medical facemask out of concern over the coronavirus.

A man riding the subway in Brooklyn wears a medical facemask out of concern over the coronavirus.

No immediate plans to close NYC schools as coronavirus threat escalates, officials say

There are no immediate plans to cancel classes in the nation’s largest school system in the face of growing concern about the coronavirus, officials said Wednesday, urging calm while acknowledging the disease will likely hit the region eventually.

“We have the greatest public health capacity of anywhere in this country” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a press conference, noting there have been no confirmed cases in the region. “There is not a single reason for panic.”

In the wake of warnings from federal officials that schools should be prepared for a spike of infections, the New York City’s education department issued new guidance to schools and families that largely reiterated the same precautions that people should take to combat illnesses like the flu. 

Officials urged frequent hand washing, covering your face when sneezing or coughing, and avoiding school if you suspect you might be sick — and seek treatment from a doctor. (De Blasio said those without access to medical care should call 311 and would receive help.)

They also tamped down fears of more dramatic action. 

“There are no plans to close schools at this time,” according to a letter sent home to families on Wednesday. “This is an extreme measure that can be disruptive to day-to-day life, and the decision to implement will be at the direction of public health experts.”

De Blasio said that outbreaks could be dealt with at individual schools, emphasizing that a systemwide shutdown would be unlikely even in the event of a rise in infections. Such decisions would present a tricky balancing act for officials, who may want to contain an outbreak while recognizing that the majority of city students come from low-income families who may struggle to find childcare arrangements or depend on school meals.

De Blasio’s remarks came a day after Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials urged schools to prepare for a possible spread of the virus, which has claimed the lives of more than 2,600 people worldwide. Nancy Messonnier, a director at the Centers for Disease Control, said she had contacted her children’s school district, asking about plans for computer-based learning if the schools needed to close.  CDC officials also suggested schools could divide classes into smaller groups.

“You should ask your children’s schools about their plans for school dismissals or school closures,” Messonnier said Tuesday. “Ask about plans for teleschool.”

City officials did not immediately answer emailed questions about whether they are developing contingency plans in the event that health experts recommend closing schools, or how instruction would continue if students were told to stay at home.

On Wednesday, the CDC’s website listed the immediate health risk to Americans as “low” — though officials also cautioned that a global “pandemic” is likely, which would alter their assessment of the risk.

The more immediate concern for some school communities may be quelling student fears, or responding to incidents of bullying related to the virus, particularly in relation to Asian students or staff members. (Student bullying incidents can be reported to the education department here.)

“There are a lot of things on social media and in the news that are not rooted in science and are offensive, demeaning and racist,” according to a letter sent to parents. School officials should “encourage everyone to keep their attention on the facts.”

Officials also put out recommendations for how schools should respond to students who may be returning from trips to China. Schools may request that students stay home for up to 14 days after returning, though it also says healthy students can not be legally barred from school. If students have been given guidance to stay home from the Health Department, schools are expected to excuse their absence.

An education department spokesperson, Miranda Barbot, said students would be permitted to wear face masks, though city health officials said they did not recommend them for the general public.

At a separate news conference on Wednesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo stressed that there have been zero confirmed cases across the state, but said that it’s “highly probable” that will change. He added that he plans to send an “emergency appropriations” bill to the legislature that would earmark $40 million for response efforts.