District school officials canceled today's classes at Eaton Elementary School in Cleveland Park to give cleaning crews time to disinfect the building after hundreds of cats were sterilized and vaccinated in the cafeteria over the weekend.
School Principal Willie McElroy had assured parents on Sunday that the school would be open today. But the unexpectedly large number of cats that were treated and public outcry over the clinic delayed the work on the building, he said.
Parents protested the clinic and wondered how the city could allow the sterilizations in a school cafeteria.
"It probably was not the best place to carry out that service in hindsight," said Jim Collier, chief of the city Health Department's bureau of environmental quality.
More than 500 cats were treated during the two-day clinic, said Robin Buckley, a consultant for Alley Cat Allies, one of the sponsors of the event, along with the city Health Department and the Washington Animal Rescue League.
"They were doing a community service," Collier said of the work on mostly stray and feral cats.
Cleaning crews did not begin work until yesterday afternoon and were expected to continue into the evening, McElroy said. Health officials estimated that the cleanup would cost $5,000 to $10,000, which would be split with Alley Cat Allies.
Many parents at the school said they were not informed about the clinic and expressed outrage that surgical procedures were performed in the cafeteria. Dana Grasty of Adams Morgan, who has three children at the school, said she learned about it only after her daughter told her Friday night that cheerleading practice would be canceled because of it.
Grasty said her daughter is highly allergic to cats. She and several other parents said they visited the school over the weekend and were appalled by the conditions.
"The air was thick with the smell of urine," said Kelley Ellsworth, who lives in Cleveland Park and has three children. "I'm shocked that they would . . . cut up a cat in a school cafeteria."
Rhonda Buford Jones of Southwest, who has two children at the school, said she could only spend a few minutes inside the building because "the smells of the ether and all the other chemicals overwhelmed me."
Health officials said that all cafeteria tables were removed from the room and that veterinary workers performed the operations on top of plastic sheets and towels that covered the floor. They also said that no school equipment was used and that the procedures were done humanely.
McElroy said that the school has held rabies vaccination clinics for the past two years and that he thought this weekend's clinic would be a similar event. He said Alley Cat Allies assured him that cleanup would be done by yesterday evening.
But the clinic turned out to be the biggest the nonprofit group has held, Buckley said. McElroy said he did not realize until Sunday night how much work needed to be done -- disinfecting the floors and walls with bleach, washing the carpet and filtering cat dander out of the air.
This was the first time that such a clinic had been held at a school, Buckley said. McElroy said that the Health Department had recommended the school to Alley Cat Allies, but Collier said the department was not involved in the selection of the site.
McElroy said Superintendent Clifford B. Janey has not decided if students will need to make up the school day. He said he would determine whether the school will open tomorrow at a meeting with parents scheduled for tonight at 6 p.m.