Chinese student tests negative for coronavirus, but exchange program ends early

William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia (Google Maps)

William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia (Google Maps)

Updated: 4:30 p.m. Tuesday

The Chinese exchange student visiting William Penn Charter School who exhibited signs of a respiratory illness tested negative for coronavirus, according to the Philadelphia Health Department.

The student and 17 others passed through Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the virus, on their way to the United States for a two-week-long exchange program last week. The student started feeling ill and because the group had traveled through Wuhan, the Philadelphia Health Department was brought in to test for the virus. The student was staying at the host family’s home in Montgomery County while awaiting the rest results, as is consistent with CDC guidelines.

Health department officials said Monday the test was out of an abundance of caution, and even if the student did have coronavirus, the recommendations would be the same no matter what:  The student should stay out of school, and everyone else should be mindful to cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze, and wash their hands frequently.

But that was not enough for parents and other students at Penn Charter, a private pre-K to-12 Quaker School in East Falls.

School administrators announced to parents on Monday night that it would end the exchange program early.

“We regret that this program has been complicated, and now terminated, because of events that were beyond the control of the people who were excited for all the learning that this cultural exchange had promised,” Head of School Darryl J. Ford wrote in an email to Penn Charter parents.

The rest of the exchange students had just said goodbye to their host families and were boarding a bus to New York, from where they would catch a flight back to China when the negative test results came in Tuesday morning.

School officials said that in addition to anxiety among parents and students, a significant increase in absences disrupted the education of the whole student body.

Schools in the region cancelled athletic competitions against Penn Charter students and according to school officials, a medical professional cancelled an appointment with a Penn Charter student, citing coronavirus as the reason. The Philadelphia Health Department did not recommend the school make any changes to its programming.

Neighboring counties were also fast to respond to the possible case. On Monday morning, Delaware County health officials issued a guidance recommending people take extra precautions as the Philadelphia case was being investigated. It noted that there are no vaccines or treatments for illnesses caused by human coronaviruses, and most people with common human coronavirus illness will recover on their own.

On Monday, the CDC issued updated travel guidance for China, recommending that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to all of the country. Thousands of cases have been confirmed there, with more than 80 deaths.

Tuesday afternoon, the Philadelphia health department reported it was investigating a new possible case. CDC guidelines stipulate that testing should occur when an individual reports respiratory symptoms and has recently been in China. No additional details were available.

Five cases have been confirmed in the United States, all among people who traveled from China. So far, the illness has not spread from person to person in the U.S.

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