Fairfax County's health director said yesterday he has recommended that School Superintendent Robert R. Spillane allow a girl with AIDS to return to the kindergarten class from which she was removed more than a month ago.
Spillane, who has said he would allow the child to return if medical advisers said it was harmless to do so, called an emergency closed-door meeting of the School Board for Saturday afternoon to discuss the controversial case.
After reviewing medical evidence compiled by a three-member panel of school system and health officials, Health Director Richard K. Miller said he told Spillane that he "saw no reason for the child to be excluded from school."
"It appeared to me that the child could go back to school given that the parents understand very thoroughly that, number one, it's their responsibility, and, number two, if there are indications of any problems, the youngster has to go back and see the pediatrician," he said in a telephone interview.
The girl's mother filed suit against the school system Dec. 22 in U.S. District Court, charging that her daughter's ejection from kindergarten in November violated a federal law that prohibits discrimination against the handicapped. A hearing on the mother's request for a preliminary injunction is scheduled for Jan. 8.
At a news conference the day the suit was filed, Spillane said the legal action was premature because he had not made a final decision in the case, although it was unlikely he would favor allowing a child with AIDS in a regular classroom. But "if the medical recommendation came to me that this was a harmless situation . . . of course I would allow the youngster into the class," he said.
Four days after the lawsuit was filed, the School Board held an emergency closed meeting at which it reversed its previous opposition to a written policy on students with AIDS and ordered Spillane to draft one. Several board members said they were unhappy that Spillane had not kept them up to date on the case and that his comments left the impression that decisions had been made before all the evidence was in.
Guidelines issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and the Virginia Health Department recommend that most children with the fatal disease be allowed to attend school without restriction. Only when children are likely to bite, bleed or otherwise be unable to control bodily fluids should restrictions be considered, according to state and federal authorities. The child's lawyers said there is no reason for restrictions in her case.
Miller said that Dr. Fred Payne, who retired yesterday as deputy county health director, has scheduled meetings Monday with staff members at the child's school and parents in her class to explain the situation and answer questions.
The child's name and school have not been made public. The only medical information about her case that has been revealed is that she is being treated with the drug AZT and that she is believed to have acquired AIDS from a blood transfusion shortly after birth.
Several School Board members have said they will not quarrel with a decision by Spillane to readmit the girl, which he can do without consulting the board.
One of them, Anthony Cardinale, said yesterday he is concerned about a backlash from parents opposed to the girl's admission. "I can't help but feel that some people will be up in arms about it," said Cardinale, who added: "My response to that is from the standpoint that all the medical records say the youngster can attend. Who am I to argue with the medical authorities?"
Miller said he would reassure parents that "the child is perfectly safe to play with. There are children in families who have very intense exposure -- sibling exposure -- who have not developed any signs or symptoms. The only thing they have to be careful about is that they don't bite. Normally, 5-year-olds don't bite one another . . . . The normal casual contact of kids in schools is such that it doesn't pose that big a problem."
"You have a child with a problem," Miller said, "but the problem is the child's and not the school's."
In barring the child, school officials have cited a state law barring students with communicable diseases from public classrooms, and the School Board has asked its lawyer to investigate whether that law should be amended.
Lawyer Kenneth Labowitz, who represents the mother in the case, said he was pleased by Miller's recommendation. He said even if Spillane endorses the decision, the lawsuit may not be moot because it also asks for money damages and for the school system to write a policy on students with AIDS.