Coronavirus fears, rumors, misinformation roil Alhambra schools

Coronavirus concerns at LAX.
Travelers wearing protective masks arrive from Japan at LAX.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

As fear about the novel coronavirus has gripped communities throughout the country, the Alhambra Unified School District has grappled with how to inform students and parents about the realities of the illness while combating misinformation and fear-based rumors.

Hoaxes about the presence of the coronavirus in unaffected areas of the San Gabriel Valley have sparked further concerns within the community, prompting some students to wear protective face masks to school — something the school district has discouraged. Now, citing fears of the virus, more than 14,000 people have signed a petition that launched last week asking the district to cancel classes indefinitely until the global outbreak has been contained.

But district officials say there are no plans to close any schools, a decision authorized only under emergency.


“Although the chances of infection are low, they are not zero and we must be prepared and cautious for what might come,” the petition states.

There have been six confirmed cases of the virus in California, with the majority in Northern California. One case has been confirmed in Los Angeles County and another in Orange County. In Riverside County, 195 Americans who were evacuated last week from the outbreak epicenter of Wuhan, China, are under a mandatory quarantine at March Reserve Air Base.

As concerns regarding the virus grow, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it is expecting more confirmed cases. Still, officials have emphasized that flu remains a bigger threat than coronavirus.

“We’re trying to communicate the context and guidelines that we are given, which is right now, the flu is a bigger threat. [10,000] to 15,000 have died of the flu. There’s no one in the U.S. that has died from coronavirus. There are none in San Gabriel Valley,” Alhambra schools public information officer Toby Gilbert said. “Fact-seeking is always the best way to stay healthy.”

More than 420 people in mainland China and one in the Philippines have died of the illness. More than 20,000 have been infected, and most cases are in China. In the United States, the CDC has confirmed 11 cases in five states — California, Arizona, Washington, Illinois and Massachusetts. Meanwhile, the flu has killed approximately 10,000 Americans since October.

In a letter shared with the school district’s community, Alhambra officials discouraged the use of face masks and stressed the importance of using other hygienic methods, such as those used to prevent flu.


The petition suggests that people wear face masks “to prevent exposure to the virus.” The district has not banned face masks, but it has actively discouraged their use, in keeping with recommendations from the CDC, officials said.

“Masks give a false sense of protection,” Gilbert said, adding that any students wearing masks will be sent to a school nurse to learn about alternative protective solutions to combating any virus, such as hand-washing.

While several petitioners have expressed fears that their children will contract the pathogen and die, the CDC has emphasized that those most at risk are the elderly and people already living with underlying illnesses.

Gilbert thinks the panic surrounding the coronavirus is twofold. The spread of misinformation about the virus has created a panic, leading some to point fingers at those of Asian descent. At the same time, families who rely on Chinese-based news outlets believe what’s happening in China is also taking place in the U.S.

“What we do have is families and students who are relying on rumor and hysterical social media posts that are not fact-based,” Gilbert said.

The district has an area on its website that directs users to a resources page, where facts about the coronavirus are shared in English, Spanish and Chinese. Alhambra appears to be the only school district in the area with such a prominent placement of information about the virus.