Thursday, May 7, 2009

Schools reopen after CDC reversal

The announcement that three Prince George's County schools that had closed because of four probable cases of swine flu would reopen Wednesday was welcomed by parents who had struggled to find child care during the school days.

County school officials made the announcement late Tuesday after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that schools no longer needed to be closed for suspected or confirmed cases of swine flu, also known as the H1N1 virus.

"This is great news for parents and students," schools Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said in a statement released Tuesday. "We understand the strain that families have been under with the uncertainty of when schools would reopen. We encourage children and adults to continue practicing prevention. Working together with parents, we can help students stay healthy and schools stay open."

An 8-year-old student at Montpelier Elementary in Laurel and a teacher at University Park Elementary were found to have probable cases of the virus, also known as the H1N1 virus, last week. A student at Vansville Elementary School in Beltsville was diagnosed as probable on Monday, the same day a second student at Montpelier also tested probable.

Dr. Donald Shell, health officer for the county's health department, said at a County Council meeting Tuesday that all the children and the adult have ties to an after-school karate program where up to 40 children were participating. All 40 children are being monitored and seven are currently sick, Shell said. He said he did not know the name of the program but said everyone involved had been notified.

Shell said he is hopeful the schools may reopen within 10 days rather than the full 14, since the illness is not severe.

"That's a good thing," Shell said. "We've been fortunate, both as a country and as a region."

The school statement Tuesday said the closed schools "continue to be cleaned daily" and that the CDC recommends that ill students and staff members stay home to prevent spreading the flu.

But the school closings have been hard on many, council members noted.

"There's a social impact, especially in the area of Montpelier," said Councilman Thomas Dernoga (D-Dist. 1), who said single parents and lower income families with students are being hit economically by the closings. "There's a real concern as to whether this will have an employment impact."

Shell said the county asked the state to step up assistance to food banks and food stamp benefits for people affected by the quarantine.

The closures of the three schools while tests were being conducted to check for the virus sent parents scrambling to find answers and daytime care for their children.

"I'm just worried about them not having anything to do," said Kesha Cotton of Laurel, who has a sixth-grader and kindergartener at Montpelier. "I mean, no homework, nothing was given to them to do while they're home for these two weeks."

Cotton's husband, Troy, took off work Monday to watch their children, Yasmine, 11, and Justin, 6. Cotton's mother will babysit Tuesday and Wednesday, and Cotton or her husband was expecting to miss work Thursday and Friday to watch them.

Ashley Woodall, 11, is a fifth-grader at Montpelier and a member of the school's county championship Science Bowl team. She and her four teammates were scheduled to be honored at Tuesday night's PGCPS Board of Education awards ceremony.

That was until the county disinvited the Montpelier team, citing health concerns.

"She was in tears," said Ashley's mother, Rikki Woodall. "I understand, but it's kind of a bummer. The kids were really looking forward to it. It was such a huge accomplishment for them."

The board plans to honor Montpelier's team at a May 27 ceremony, said county schools spokesman John White. But for now, the team could pose a health risk to other schools' students.

"The health department advises us against having that level of exposure," White said.

This week, Ashley is being watched by her grandfather, Richard Woodall of Lanham. His schedule is open because he was laid off from his job as a courier manager several months ago.

"His misfortune is my fortune," said Rikki Woodall, a settlement coordinator for a title company. "If he wasn't available, I'd have to leave her home by herself."

Other parents, like Chris Harvey of University Park, had to juggle responsibilities. Harvey, a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, will miss three days this week while caring for her daughter, Anna, 8. If schools were closed longer, she planned a baby-sitting rotation with a neighbor.

"We're sort of shuffling kids around from one home to the next," she said.

There were 15 probable swine flu cases in Maryland as of Monday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Four of the cases — a high school student and two adults in Baltimore County and a pre-schooler in Anne Arundel County — have been confirmed as definite swine flu cases. Six schools in the state and three in Prince George's were expected to be closed for up to 14 days unless the CDC recommended otherwise.

County schools have not determined whether the three will have to make up the days they miss, White said. Make-up days are usually allotted on a countywide basis, such as in the case of weather emergencies.

"In our case, it's only [three] schools," White said. "This is a little different."

While Montpelier, University Park and Vansville elementaries deal with the fallout from their suspected cases, parents at other schools are worried that swine flu could come their way.

Julia Shepperson of Landover hopes her children's classmates at Glenarden's Judge Sylvania W. Woods Elementary practice good hand washing and have access to hand sanitizer in each classroom. Her children Jordan, 8, a third-grader, and Justine, 11, a sixth-grader, both attend the school.

"Perhaps they could put a bathroom monitor on just to ensure that that is being done," Shepperson said.

Wanda Michals of Capitol Heights continues to remind her children, Joshua, 5, a pre-kindergartener, and Paige, 8, a third-grader, to keep their hands out of their mouths and keep their distance from coughing children. Both attend Capitol Heights Elementary School.

"If it did come to the school, I would say just to be on the safe side they should close it," Michals said. "If a child got sick and they weren't sure, I'd rather they err on the side of caution, even if it meant them going into summer break."

Michals said she was surprised to hear about the cases in the county. She said she hopes Capitol Heights Elementary is diligent about sanitizing the cafeteria and bathrooms daily.

"I was surprised and just more cautious like, ‘Wow, it's getting closer,'" Michals said."That safety net that we still had is dwindling. Daily."

Mark Lockett, PTA president for Arrowhead Elementary School in Upper Marlboro, said he is not too worried about the swine flu because he has taught his children to wash their hands and to be cautious. But he said he worries that other parents are not doing the same.

"I am concerned about a lot of parents," said Lockett, of Upper Marlboro. "They should be teaching their kids how to cover their mouth, how to do certain things."

Lockett said he is keeping a careful eye on the situation at Arrowhead, especially because his daughter has asthma. If he hears about a lot of students falling ill or being absent, he already knows what he will do.

"I am prepared, at a moment's notice, to keep her out of school," he said.

Upper Marlboro resident Aletha Mills, who has a son in the seventh grade at Kettering Middle School, said she hopes teachers, cafeteria workers and other employees at the school are washing their hands regularly and encouraging students to do the same.

"It's a little alarming," she said. "It's about hygiene now."

But Mills said she is also worried children will be singled out as having the swine flu just for having flu-like symptoms.

"You don't want kids being [singled out] because they have allergies," said Mills, who said her son has them. "It's like, ‘Oh, have you been to Mexico lately?'"

Staff writers Greg Holzheimer, Natalie McGill and Daniel Valentine contributed to this story.


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