Parents Debate Sending Children To School as Officials Urge Caution

By Lori Aratani and Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 30, 2009

The word came so late in the school day yesterday that officials couldn't send a letter to parents, so they resorted to e-mails and phone calls: A student at Folger McKinsey Elementary School in Severna Park was one of six probable cases of swine flu in Maryland.

"I heard this morning that a toddler died in Texas. And now, suddenly, there's a case in my back yard," said Beth Pendergast, whose daughter Danielle is a third-grader at Folger. "To be honest, my family is scared, and I'm scared. Even though they're taking all the precautions, it's still my child. At this point, there's no way I'm sending her to school tomorrow."

The six people represent the first possible cases of swine flu to reach the Washington region. The announcement set off debates for parents about whether to send children to school as officials urged residents to remain calm and said that efforts to stockpile medications were expanding.

The six probable cases are the Folger student and two family members who live in Anne Arundel County and three people in Baltimore County, including a high school student, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and state health officials said at a news conference that began at 3:30 p.m.

At a news conference last night, President Obama recommended that schools with suspected cases of swine flu strongly consider closing. But a spokesman for O'Malley said afterward that Maryland schools would remain open. "At this point it doesn't appear that it's necessary given the probable cases in Maryland," spokesman Shaun Adamec said.

Additionally, 10 students at the University of Delaware are thought to be infected with the virus, which is spreading around the world and has led to at least one death in the United States. A toddler from Mexico City died Monday in Texas.

Health officials said that none of the three Anne Arundel family members had traveled abroad recently but that a fourth family member had recently been to Mexico, where the virus appears to have originated.

Two of the Baltimore County cases are members of the same family, and one had recently been to Mexico. The third case is not related to the other two. It was not clear which of the three is the high school student.

Maryland and Delaware health officials said that the federal Centers for Disease Control in Prevention were testing the suspected cases and that the results could be released today. None of the infections appeared to be life-threatening, none of the people had been hospitalized and most appeared to be recovering.

The public should be prepared for more infections, officials said. In addition to the six Maryland cases that have been sent to the CDC in Atlanta for confirmation, six other samples were being analyzed by a state lab for preliminary signs of swine flu.

No cases had been reported in the District or Virginia.

Officials continued to urge people to take common-sense precautions, such as frequently washing hands, covering their mouths when coughing and staying home if feeling ill.

"This is not a time for alarm, but rather heightened awareness and care for our families, ourselves and each other," O'Malley said.

Folger McKinsey was scrubbed with disinfectant last night, and health authorities told school officials that it was safe for it to be open today.

But some parents said they were so concerned that they might keep their children home. "We're trying to figure out the timeline of it, how much time has already passed, how many days our children might have been exposed to it, how it could have come here in the first place," said Karen Reynolds, who has two children at the school. "It's a little scary."

Karen Troy, who has two children at Folger, said she was not sending them to school today. "I'm not going to send them back to a place where children may have been incubating this illness," she said. "We're hoping they will come to their senses and close the school. We all know how it spreads, so why not contain it?"

The Baltimore County high school student attends Milford Mill Academy in the western part of the county. Students gathered outside yesterday said they had received word about their schoolmate from the news and text messages from their parents. "Our classes are packed," said Jasmine Nelson, a 10th-grader. "We could be sitting next to somebody who has it."

The University of Delaware campus was open yesterday, but the state Division of Public Health commandeered a gym, and 103 health professionals screened students. The workers recorded symptoms and directed those who appeared to be at risk to nurses who determined whether they should be supplied with Tamiflu and an inhaler.

Four university students who became ill Monday were thought to have the virus. Six other students treated at the school Tuesday also showed signs of the virus. "We were in Mexico a month ago on spring break," said Kelly McGraw, 20, of West Chester, Pa. "I have a little bit of a cold. I just wanted to be sure."

Heidi Truschel-Light, media relations director for the Delaware Division of Public Health, said that more than 250 students were evaluated and that at least 60 were given precautionary doses of antiviral medication. Of the 10 thought to be infected, at least one had gone to Mexico for spring break, but others had not.

Staff writers Michael Birnbaum, Michael Alison Chandler, Ashley Halsey III, Steve Hendrix, Nelson Hernandez, Susan Kinzie, Valerie Strauss, Theresa Vargas, William Wan, Clarence Williams and Matt Zapotosky and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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