Mark Sanchez, president of the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education, and Superintendent Dr. Vincent Matthews discuss closing schools over coronavirus at an emergency meeting on Thursday, March 12, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SF public schools to close for three weeks as coronavirus spreads

San Francisco public schools will be closed for the next three weeks after city health officials warned that the coronavirus would inevitably spread to students and staff, Superintendent Vincent Matthews announced Thursday.

Matthews said at an afternoon news conference that the San Francisco Unified School District would close schools beginning March 16 and through the end of the regularly scheduled Spring Break.

He described the schedule changes as a “new reality.”

“This is not business as usual,” Matthews told reporters. “It is likely we will see many more COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks and months. This will require a measured and sustained response.”

The Board of Education held an emergency meeting behind closed doors Thursday morning to consider shutting down after four students and their families were reported to be suffering from respiratory illnesses at Lakeshore Elementary.

Though the number of coronavirus cases in San Francisco reached 18 on Thursday, the students and families at Lakeshore Elementary have not been confirmed to have the virus.

School board President Mark Sanchez said attendance at schools across The City has been decreasing day-by-day.

“A lot of things came together to make this decision,” Sanchez said at the news conference. “A lot of teachers feel vulnerable, a lot of teachers are planning not to come to school.”

The district had been facing calls to close the schools, including from Supervisor Matt Haney and the teachers union.

“I am in touch with the school district, families, teachers and staff, and city departments about how we can support students, staff and families during this time,” Haney, the former president of the Board of Education, said in a statement.

Before the decision, United Educators of San Francisco President Susan Solomon said the schools should be shuttered to protect the health and safety of students, families and staff members.

Solomon said the four Lakeshore Elementary students becoming sick made the evolving situation feel more like an “emergency.”

The coronavirus outbreak has ramped up across the world over the past week, causing the U.S. economy to plummet and widespread cancellations of mass gatherings. On Wednesday, the World Health Organization declared the virus a pandemic.

Locally, San Francisco has banned gatherings of 1,000 or more people including sports events and concerts under an official Public Health Order. Gov. Gavin Newsom has also ordered Californians to follow the guidelines of state health officials, who recommend that events of 250 people or more be cancelled or postponed at least through March.

SFUSD first closed Lowell High School last Thursday when a parent of a student tested positive for the virus. The school underwent a deep cleaning and reopened Wednesday.

Earlier in the week, the Board of Education held its first emergency meeting to discuss the crisis but decided against widespread closures, acknowledging that schools are an essential social service.

But school officials warned educators and families to plan ahead for the possibility of schools closing.

And Dr. Grant Colfax, director of public health, said it was inevitable for students and faculty to test positive for the virus.

“It is only a matter of time before multiple students and staff members at SFUSD schools have a diagnosis for coronavirus COVID-19,” Colfax said Wednesday.

This developing story has been updated.

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