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Boston enlists school cafeteria in fight against coronavirus

A person wearing a mask to protect against the coronavirus walked past the Josiah Quincy Elementary School in Chinatown.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The Josiah Quincy Elementary School has converted its cafeteria into an emergency screening clinic for people presenting with COVID-19 symptoms, opening its doors to help combat the public health crisis.

The conversion was announced in a letter Wednesday to the school community from Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, who said the district had been working with the city and Tufts Medical Center to transform the cafeteria into a clinical station.

“This auxiliary clinic will provide a critical service necessary to help stop the spread of the virus and ensure the safety of our community,” wrote Cassellius.

The conversion of the school, which is near Tufts Medical Center, comes just after Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced plans Thursday to convert the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center into a 1,000-bed field hospital to confront the crisis.

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In her letter, Cassellius did not rule out the possibility that the school might play an even larger role in the city’s battle against the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.

“As the COVID-19 emergency continues to develop, the facility may need to be used for additional purposes,” she wrote. “We are in constant, daily communication with the Mayor’s Office and public health officials to closely monitor and address all concerns as this unprecedented situation continues to evolve.”

A spokesperson for the district said there are currently no plans for other uses.

She added that district custodians began working with Tufts Medical Center staff and clinicians last weekend to convert the cafeteria, moving tables and chairs into the hallway, constructing partitions, laying down surface coverings, and installing an industrial-level HVAC system to ensure “air from the clinical area does not recirculate through the building.”

Quincy Elementary, home to about 800 students, was closed in mid-March as city leaders sought to slow the spread of the coronavirus by shutting down the city’s 125 schools. The district is not set to reopen until at least May 4.

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This is not the first time the school has been used in times of crisis. A district spokesperson said the school building has previously been used to house community members during safety emergencies.

In the current crisis, Cassellius said the school’s cafeteria could remain separate from classrooms and other learning areas.

“The safety and well-being of Boston Public Schools students and staff is always our top priority," Cassellius said in a statement to the Globe. She added that strict safety protocols would be followed at the school, including “the same thorough daily cleaning measures taken at Tufts [Medical Center].”

Quincy Elementary principal Cynthia Soo Hoo did not reply immediately to a request for comment.

Christie Gibson, whose child attends kindergarten at the school, said she was not surprised by the decision.

“The schools are a city facility,” said Gibson. “If we had a hurricane, gyms would be turned into shelters. So I wasn’t that upset about it.”

She added that she was concerned the decision could signal the end of the school year.

“It makes it seem like the likelihood of us going back to school this spring is low."

Parent Brittany Seymour, who works in global and public health, said she’d suspected the city would need to enlist auxiliary buildings to fight the virus.

“I’m proud of our school for stepping up,” said Seymour, whose daughter attends first grade at Quincy. Her main concern, she said, is making sure that “parents feel comfortable knowing their kids are going back to a safe and sanitized environment.”

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In her letter, Cassellius said that once Tufts no longer needs the cafeteria, the district’s custodial staff will work with the medical center’s Environmental Services Department and the city "to ensure the area is fully sanitized and disinfected.”

“This incredible challenge will only make our community stronger,” she wrote. “We’ll get through this together.”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.