The Anne Arundel County Board of Education ruled today that 3-year-old Johnny Bigley may attend his preschool classes as long as the periodic lesions caused by his herpes are covered and are not on his hands, head or neck.
The decision, which upheld Superintendent Robert C. Rice's guidelines allowing the child to attend school, pleased Johnny's parents, Ed and Mary Bigley. But it dismayed officials with the county teachers' association, who called the policy inadequate and incomplete. The decision was the latest, but probably not the last, in a controversy that has left Johnny without classmates since Jan. 7.
"We feel there are major holes in the policy," said Tom Paolino, president of the teachers' association, who said the group will likely appeal to the State Board of Education. "We do not think the child should come to school unless he is free of any active lesions."
Herpes is an incurable viral disease that commonly results in lesions or blisters on the skin and is transmitted by contact. It is unknown whether Johnny, who contracted the disease shortly after birth, has the common variety of herpes that causes cold sores or another type known as genital herpes, which often causes the sores in the genital area.
The teachers' association had urged that Johnny be banned from class whenever he has an outbreak of the virus, which his parents argue could amount to as many as 45 days a year. Furthermore, the association wants Johnny checked daily by a nurse to ensure that he is not infected, a measure that was not included in the school board policy.
The policy gives principals the right to exclude from school a student who has a visible lesion. A certificate from a doctor or public health nurse would be required before the child could be readmitted.
Those points, rather than solving the problem, said Paolino, only raise additional questions.
"Is a principal trained to recognize a lesion?" he asked. "Is a teacher trained? What if other children become infected? Who's going to assume the legal liability? Somebody will end up with a lawsuit.
"We're trying to get all the kids back in school so they can be educated, but I don't know if this policy is going to accomplish that," Paolino said.
Since classes began Jan. 7, the parents of the five students in Johnny's preschool special education class at Pasadena Elementary have kept their children home. Under federal law, Johnny, who has a speech problem that is unrelated to his herpes, is entitled to receive some instruction.
The parents of the other children say they fear that if the youngsters attend classes with Johnny, they could contract herpes. One parent said today that the new policy does nothing to allay those fears.
"I still feel there should be no active lesions in the classroom, anywhere, no matter whether they are covered or not," said Brenda Evans, who has a son assigned to Johnny's class. "That policy is exactly where we started -- with nothing."
Ed Bigley, who attended today's board meeting, said the policy represents an encouraging step. He has maintained that the public does not understand herpes, how common it is, and how easily and often a child is exposed to the virus.
"It's another forward step for Johnny today," Bigley said. "We've been dealing with the fear of the unknown. Johnny is not unique. Eighty percent of the population has this virus in their systems."
The Bigleys said they hope the other children eventually will reenter school.
"He needs other children to play with," Mary Bigley said. "Come back to school, please. Give Johnny a chance. He's just a little boy."