As the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus an international health emergency Thursday, private high schools in Maine with Chinese students were asking them not to travel home during an upcoming break and calling off administrators’ upcoming recruiting trips.
One school even had a newly enrolled Chinese student checked at a local hospital as a precaution. Another was determining whether any students at its campus in Shanghai had recently traveled to the Hubei Province in central China — the epicenter of the outbreak — or been in contact with anyone who had traveled there.
“There’s a worldwide consensus developing about what to do and what not to do,” said Mel McKay, head of school at John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor, where 48 Chinese students are enrolled. “Schools are communicating well with our friends in China, and everybody’s agreeing that now’s a bad time to travel.”
The first infections of the new coronavirus were identified in the city of Wuhan in Hubei Province in December. Infections had spread rapidly across China and crossed over to 18 countries as of Thursday. The death toll surpassed 200 on Thursday and the number of confirmed infections was nearly 10,000 as of late Thursday.
A lot is still unknown about the respiratory illness that causes flu-like symptoms, but China has shut down travel into and out of much of Hubei Province, and public health agencies across the world have recommended canceling all nonessential travel in and out of China.
Most Maine private schools have consulted with public health agencies, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about proper protocols, and have communicated with parents of Chinese students about discouraging temporary travel over February break.
At George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill, a student who came to the high school in mid-January from China was checked at Northern Light Blue Hill Hospital as a precaution, even though he did not show symptoms, Head of School Tim Seeley said.
“He was not coming from Wuhan or that part of China, but we did think it made sense to do the test, and it came back negative,” he said.
George Stevens also canceled an upcoming recruiting trip to China planned for February.
“I wouldn’t plan on traveling until everything is sorted out,” Seeley said.
John Bapst administrators have been talking to students to find out if any have plans to travel back home for the upcoming break, MacKay said. The school has also been speaking with the students’ parents.
“The families in China are not eager to have their kids travel at this time,” he said. “It’s far too complicated.”
Even though Lee Academy has three students from China enrolled in Maine, it has an international branch in Shanghai with about 100 students.
“Our head of school over there has been in touch with all the students to find out where they’d been traveling for Lunar New Year or where they’ve had guests come from, trying to make sure that none of their family has been exposed to anybody who was in Wuhan or in that general area,” said Luke Shorty, executive director of Lee Academy. “They’re just going through with what has been recommended to them by the city of Shanghai in this situation.”
The headmaster of Thornton Academy in Saco, Rene Menard, sent a letter to parents with information about the novel coronavirus and the school’s travel policy on Thursday.
“The immediate risk of contracting this virus remains low in the United States,” he said in the letter. “However, we will remain in communication with the CDC and continue to review and respond to ongoing news and announcements issued by relevant health sources. In addition, all international visits are in review and are being postponed or cancelled as appropriate.”
Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield has also canceled all student trips to China for the time being. All the school’s recruiters are also in Maine with no plans to travel to China for now.
“We have contacted the parents of our Chinese students regarding travel to China and all have decided that these students will stay in Maine during the upcoming school break in February for their health and safety,” Head of School Christopher McDonald said.
The University of Maine is working to bring two students participating in study abroad programs in China back to the U.S., according to UMaine spokeswoman Margaret Nagle. UMaine is communicating with both students to finalize plans in the next few days.
So far, there have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Maine or anywhere else in New England. Two people who were under surveillance in New Hampshire after they developed symptoms following travel to Wuhan tested negative, according to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services.