Sometime last year, when the stories about children with AIDS attending schools started surfacing, mothers I know began asking each other the tough question: Would you let your child attend classes with a child who had the disease?
That led to a fair amount of soul searching, and a very great many of us discovered that after we'd gone through the proper intellectual examination of the risks of catching the disease the answer came out as a resounding no.
None of us much cared for the crowds of protesting parents who were doing everything they could think of to keep the children out of schools, and each of us felt a great deal of compassion for the children who were isolated at home, living not only with a terrible disease but also with a terrible loneliness. The answer still came out no.
Since then, various communities and agencies have drawn up guidelines to address the issue, but terminally ill children continue to be at the center of a cruel and nasty business. The latest incident involves a 14-year-old Kokomo, Ind., boy, Ryan White, who is a hemophiliac and contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion. He has been out of school 14 months, studying at home through a phone hookup that allowed him to listen to classroom instruction and answer questions as well as ask them. Last week, a county health official ruled that Ryan posed no health threat and could return to school. Special conditions were set: He would eat and drink from disposable utensils and cups, not use the swimming pool or water fountains, use a private toilet and not attend gym class.
The inevitable protests ensued. One student -- who said she and her friends were confused about AIDS -- planned to circulate a petition asking that he not be allowed to attend. Parents went to court.
Welcome back, Ryan White.
According to news reports, the boy attended classes on Friday and nearly half of his classmates boycotted the school. By the end of the day, a judge had issued a temporary restraining order barring Ryan from returning to school under a state law that forbids students with communicable diseases to attend school. His family's lawyer said the parents will continue to fight for his reinstatement and the judge has said he will schedule a full hearing on whether AIDS fits under the communicable disease statute.
Acquired immnune deficiency syndrome is not a disease that is spread by casual contact. Until recently, there had been no reports of the disease being transmitted to family members of AIDS victims and the one case that has surfaced involved the mother of a 2-year-old who had repeatedly come into contact with the child's blood and other bodily fluids.
Last October, the National Education Association issued guidelines addressing the issue of allowing both teachers with AIDS and students with it in the classroom. The NEA suggested they be allowed to attend school only after a team of doctors, school officials and parents agree that it is safe. Children with visible open lesions should not be admitted, nor should children who are prone to vomiting, spitting or biting. NEA's guidelines followed closely those of the Centers for Disease Control, which, as of last October, said there had been 191 reported cases of AIDS in children under the age of 13. There have been 75 cases in the last six years among children 13 to 19, according to the agency.
At the end of his first day back in school, Ryan White told reporters that "a lot of people said, 'Hi,' " and that his schoolmates treated him "like everyone else." He said he was glad to be back.
Ronald Colby, principal of Western Middle School, said, "Ryan was accepted by the children. I saw no one cringing up against the wall."
Those were children, however, who had chosen not to boycott their classmate and children whose parents had chosen not to boycott their children's classmate.
AIDS destroys the body's immune system and makes it particularly susceptible to infection. For that reason alone, one would think that parents of a stricken child would want to shield him from the viruses that children routinely bring home from school. Beyond that, however, is the question of whether school attendance is worth the anguish, the embarrassment, the emotional travail of lawsuits and the sheer pain of rejection by fellow students and other parents that these cases invariably bring. The question that arose last year is perhaps the wrong one. Given the fear and ignorance that surround the disease, the better question might be: If you had a child with AIDS, would you want to have him in school?
In this corner, at least, the answer would be a resounding no.