Two days before closing a New York City public school building where a student tested positive for the coronavirus, Department of Education officials sent out an internal memo advising staff not to report anyone with potential symptoms to the city Department of Health, THE CITY has learned.
The memo from schools headquarters to staff systemwide went out Tuesday morning, days after Mayor Bill de Blasio confirmed that three public school teachers who’d been in a coronavirus hot zone had to be tested. At the same time, his health commissioner issued an order mandating that educators, first responders and city health care workers deemed at risk must be tested.
The memo lists a number of precautions to stem the spread of the virus, but explicitly makes clear the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene — the command center for tracking the virus in New York City — should not be contacted.
“At the moment, there is no reason for any school to call DOHMH to report potential or confirmed cases. DOHMH is receiving information from about positive test results strictly from laboratories. We can support our colleagues at DOHMH by keeping their phones clear to speak with laboratories.”
Mid-morning Thursday, more than 24 hours after THE CITY asked about the logic of this approach, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene spokesperson Stephanie Buhle wrote in an email, “Our guidance is abundantly clear: if you’re sick, stay home. Physicians and public health professionals guide when testing is appropriate.”
An hour earlier, de Blasio announced that two schools co-located in a South Bronx building — the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology and South Bronx Preparatory — were shut down temporarily “due to a student’s self-confirmed positive case of COVID-19,” the designation for the coronavirus illness.
The statement notes that the Department of Education will “completely disinfect the building” and that the Health Department will “trace close contacts of this individual [student] to recommend quarantine and testing if necessary.” The two schools enroll a total of more than 1,300 students in grades six through 12.
Subsequently, schools officials tweeted, “At this time there is no indication that students in these schools need to be tested” but advised them to stay in their homes until further notice. The school building was shut down for 24 hours following a protocol issued last week by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
City Hall has not yet released any details on the circumstances that led to the student being tested for COVID-19, but during a news conference Thursday afternoon, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza confirmed the protocol advising staff not to notify DOHMH of suspected cases, explaining that the DOE did not want to “inundate” the Health Department.