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Mayor Bill de Blasio is joined by health officials and Chancellor Richard Carranza for an update on the coronavirus.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is joined by health officials and Chancellor Richard Carranza for an update on the coronavirus.

Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

As teacher shows signs of coronavirus, mayor says NYC was slow to update travel guidance for schools

New York City should have more quickly updated its school-related travel guidance, Mayor Bill de Blasio admitted Wednesday amid the revelation that a teacher who recently traveled to Italy has displayed signs of coronavirus. 

The teacher started showing coronavirus-like symptoms several days after she returned to the United States from Italy, according to a report by THE CITY. She had taught class and was around children before visiting a doctor, who refused to test her for the virus. The teacher is now under a two-week self-quarantine, according to THE CITY. She reportedly notified school officials. 

Guidance posted by the school system the day before this news broke provided a link to a health department FAQ describing what to do if you’ve traveled recently to China. That information did not say what to do if you visited other countries that the Centers for Disease Control has also flagged, such as Italy, Iran and Japan, even though New York City’s first confirmed case of coronavirus was a woman who had returned from a work trip in Iran. 

“I think the initial focus on China was there and was right,” the mayor said during a press conference Wednesday. “I think we would all say now there should have been faster adjustment for the additional countries,” adding that the guidance would be fixed Wednesday. 

The teacher, whose identity and school affiliation was not released, was expected to be tested Thursday for the virus, the mayor said. Her school would be “deep cleaned” and health department “disease detectives” would visit, according to THE CITY.

There was “no evidence” as of Wednesday afternoon that any children were displaying symptoms, said Chancellor Richard Carranza, who was also at the press conference.

Families and elected officials have become increasingly concerned in recent days of the rising threat of coronavirus, which causes flu-like symptoms. As of Wednesday afternoon, 11 people had tested positive in New York for the illness. One of them is the woman who traveled to Iran. The other 10 include a Westchester man who works at a Midtown Manhattan law firm, his wife, their daughter, their son, their neighbor, and others who were in close contact with him, Gov. Andrew Cuomo told reporters on Wednesday afternoon. 

The city continued to urge New Yorkers to regularly wash their hands, stay home if they’re feeling ill, and contact a doctor if they’re concerned. But they also attempted to tamp down panic, saying the risk for children is low.

If an unvaccinated person entered a room two hours after someone with measles had been there, they run the risk of contracting it because it is an airborne illness, said Dr. Oxiris Barbot, commissioner of the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. But if the same situation involved someone with coronavirus, there is an “extraordinarily small chance” that an unaffected person would test positive. 

Coronavirus is spread through droplets and “casual contact” — which is why health officials recommend washing hands regularly with soap and not touching your face. 

“We want to really emphasize that the risk to New Yorkers remains low,” Barbot told reporters. 

Still, concerns about schools being stocked with enough soap persisted. Councilman Mark Treyger said he continues to hear that schools don’t have the soap they need. 

The mayor said Wednesday that schools had to be deep-cleaned twice a week, and the education department had “ensured all 1,800 schools have adequate hygiene and cleaning materials.”

If a school employee notices that a child is sick, the protocol works like this: They should flag down a nurse or principal, ask the student to wear a mask — which will be provided to all schools — and isolate the student until a parent or guardian picks them up, Carranza said. The parent will be instructed to take the student to a doctor. Nurses or principals should also notify the education department so that they can report it to the health department, the chancellor explained.
The city would have more information later Wednesday or Thursday on how many teachers had self-isolated, de Blasio said, but he said it was a “small number.” The city canceled all trips sponsored by the education department to China, South Korea, Italy, Iran, and Japan — all countries that have a specific travel notice from the Centers for Disease Control. The education department also advised schools to cancel study abroad programs for students going to other countries and for city families who are hosting foreign students. 

Teachers are allowed up to 10 paid sick days a year. Asked how coronavirus-related absences could affect that, de Blasio said it’s “not going to be an issue in this case. We will work with that.” 

Meanwhile, the mayor strengthened his rhetoric on a contingency plan, saying the city has the “basic capacity” to provide remote learning. Asked a day earlier about remote learning, the mayor said “we’re not there yet,” and they were not thinking about school closures. Closing schools is still the last resort, Carranza said, “because of the myriad of issues that creates for students, parents, teachers, etc.” Many families rely on school for meals and childcare. 

The education department is currently working with the city’s health department to figure out a contingency plan for closing schools, should the city get to that point, Carranza said. He also said there is a plan in place for such a situation, but that it will be revised as needed. 

The department has not provided any details on such a plan this week.