Coronavirus concerns abruptly end exchange program at William Penn Charter School

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- As the Philadelphia Department of Public Health works to determine if an exchange student at William Penn Charter is infected with the coronavirus, school officials say they are ending their exchange program.

Following state and federal protocols, the Chinese student is currently in isolation pending tests for the coronavirus.

The child felt unwell last week and has received medical treatment, and is reportedly feeling better.

The student is one of 18 students and three chaperones who are here as part of an exchange program.

But on Monday night, Action News has learned that the school is making arrangements to have all exchange students return home.

In a letter obtained by Action News, the school told parents, "While we have no test results of the exchange student who felt unwell last week, and no new reports of illness within the group (we did a screening of all of the exchange students and chaperones today, and they showed no symptoms of illness), in consultation with Alpha Exchange we have decided to end the China exchange."

"The exchange students will not be in class tomorrow, and Alpha Exchange is making plans for their lodging and safe return home. We have made arrangements for the students to depart tomorrow morning from Timmons House. 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," the school added.

EMBED More News Videos

Officials at William Penn Charter in East Falls are working with health officials to determine whether an exchange student from China might be infected with the coronavirus.



The exchange student under evaluation is among a group of teens who caught a connecting flight out of Wuhan City, ground zero for the illness, before arriving in the U.S. earlier this month.

The letter states the risk that the student is ill with the coronavirus is very low.

For most people, the coronavirus is similar to the flu and generally resolves itself rather quickly.

Test results are due in the coming days.

READ THE FULL LETTER BELOW:

Dear Friends,

I write to give you an update on the exchange student being tested for the coronavirus and to share news about developments at Penn Charter.

The student continues to feel better and is in isolation and under the care of Alpha Exchange, the organization responsible for bringing the exchange students from China. We have continued to be in contact with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and are told that we may know the results of the testing as early as tomorrow. In addition, please know that health officials continue to state that the risk to the Penn Charter community is low and have advised no changes to our current operations. When we know the test results, we will report them to you promptly along with any related actions.

While we have no test results of the exchange student who felt unwell last week, and no new reports of illness within the group (we did a screening of all of the exchange students and chaperones today, and they showed no symptoms of illness), in consultation with Alpha Exchange we have decided to end the China exchange.

The exchange students will not be in class tomorrow, and Alpha Exchange is making plans for their lodging and safe return home. We have made arrangements for the students to depart tomorrow morning from Timmons House.

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.

While some will think the decision to end the exchange is the right one and others may disagree, I remain thankful for the views and opinions expressed by all those with whom we have been in consultation in recent days. These include the Philadelphia and Montgomery Departments of Public Health, Penn Charter's cooperating physician, our clerk of Overseers, faculty and staff, and community members - including the many parents who have expressed support and genuine concern.

Although we have not been advised that it is necessary or advisable for us to cancel the exchange for medical or public health reasons, I make this decision because of the following factors:

Parent and student concern. Despite the assurances of health officials that the coronavirus presents no more threat to the health of our community than the flu, many parents and students are nervous about possible exposure to this newly identified virus. We have listened to these concerns and fears.

Disruption to the educational program. The absentee rate today is higher than normal and higher even than our flu season numbers, and parents of many absent students cited risk of coronavirus as the reason for their student's absence. This level of absenteeism negatively affects the learning environment, and I have a responsibility to students and parents to protect the learning environment.
Test results. While we have been told that the test result may be back as early as tomorrow, we still have uncertainty whether it would be today, or tomorrow, or later this week when the CDC will report the test results for the exchange student who has come under the Center for Disease Control and Prevention coronavirus protocols.
Complications with media reports. Although the CDC has not yet ruled on this point of science, local media is reporting that the coronavirus is contagious before symptoms appear. These reports have increased anxiety. Students were aware of the media presence on the periphery of our campus at different times today -- one student went so far as to explain to me how he devised a route home that would evade the news trucks - and I am not comfortable that our students and visitors from China feel that they are under scrutiny from the news media.

In addition to our own community, we have considered the well-being of our visitors. The top concerns of our exchange students are whether their families are in good health and whether they will be able to return to China and their homes when the exchange here in the U.S. ends. However, we are also aware that the press coverage and anxiety here on campus may create for them an environment that feels unwelcoming. This is not the experience we wanted for them.

We were specific in our email to families and faculty/staff last night about our assessment of health risks - an assessment reached in partnership with local health officials and our cooperating physician. Although that assessment has not changed, we realize that the factors I have outlined above make it impossible for us to adequately manage the emotions and logistics of this situation.

Penn Charter will be open tomorrow, and we look forward to resuming our normal, robust program with a full complement of students. If you have concerns or questions about medical issues, I encourage you to reach out to Coordinator of Health Services Debra Foley. If you have questions about the exchange program, please contact Director of Strategic Initiatives Travis Larrabee.

Sincerely,
Darryl J. Ford, Head of School
Copyright © 2020 WPVI-TV. All Rights Reserved.