OTTAWA -- The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board says it has cancelled a planned trip to Italy for Merivale High School students because of the "evolving risk posed by the coronavirus disease."

In a letter to parents and guardians, Superintendent of Instruction Shannon Smith said the decision was based on an abundance of care and caution for students and staff.

"The planned travel itinerary included areas of northern Italy currently impacted by COVID-19," Smith wrote. "At this time, it is difficult to predict how circumstances will evolve in Italy between now and the departure date; or how authorities will need to respond on issues of public safety during the time the group was scheduled to be traveling in Italy."

The trip would have taken place March 12-22.

The federal government is telling Canadian travelers to exercise a high degree of caution in northern Italy due to the impact of COVID-19.

"If you travel to Italy, take precautions against respiratory and other illnesses, and seek medical attention if you become sick," the Public Health Agency of Canada says.

Smith says she understands students will be disappointed, but stressed the need for safety.

"School trips / travel are highly anticipated experiences for students and staff and can provide great learning opportunities," Smith said. "However, we must prioritize our commitment to student safety to ensure that students or staff are not exposed to an unnecessary risk of harm."

More than 650 infections have been reported in Italy and at least 17 people have died.

Earlier this week, the government of Italy urged travelers not to cancel their trips, insisting they are handling the outbreak.