In the recent publicity over AIDS cases, Prince William County school officials have earned a reputation for having an enlightened AIDS policy. It hasn't always been so.

Last month, an unidentified student who has been exposed to the deadly virus was readmitted to the classroom without fuss. But only a year ago, an infected special-education teacher was permanently suspended from his Prince William classroom, provoking a storm of criticism and a highly publicized lawsuit by the teacher.

Robert Rice, 32, has since dropped his suit seeking reinstatement and remains on paid administrative leave.

In each case the seven-member School Board followed a policy it adopted last January, but there were very different results.

The policy states that AIDS will be dealt with on a "case-by-case" basis. A health team -- composed of the county health director and members of the school administration -- evaluates each case, during which time the student or staff member is suspended.

The health team considers the person's psychological state, neurological development and behavior. It may consult with the individual's personal physician.

The team makes its recommendation to the School Board, which then votes on whether to reinstate the individual to the classroom or the work place.

School Board Chairman Gerard P. Cleary and other board members who participated in the decisions to suspend Rice and to readmit the student say each case was difficult to decide, requiring a "lot of soul-searching," in Cleary's words.

"I believe we had very good information in both instances," said board member Patricia L. Cusey. "It's really an awesome kind of thing to think of dealing with."

Although most area school systems have policies for students and staff who have been exposed to AIDS, Prince William is the only locality to implement its policy twice in 12 months.

Some observers, including Kenneth Labowitz, Rice's attorney, see a connection between the cases.

"That kid owes a tremendous debt to Bobby," said Labowitz, who has handled several AIDS cases, including the much-publicized one of a 5-year-old girl in Fairfax County.

Labowitz said the cost of fighting Rice's efforts to return to the classroom made Prince William school officials more likely to accept the student, identified only as a girl older than kindergarten age, rather than risk another legal battle.

Said Cleary, "One case has nothing to do with the other."

Joseph Dyer, attorney for the School Board, said that although the county's health director, Dr. Jared A. Florance, had advised the board that Rice posed no health threat to his students, Rice's close contact with them was a prime factor in the board's decision not to allow him to return to the classroom.

Because Rice's students were mentally retarded, he had to feed some of them and help them with personal hygiene. "These were special ed kids. What if one of them bit him?" board member Odis M. Price said, recalling the decision.

Price and Dyer said that Rice's health was a factor in the board's decision.

"One of the board's positions was that they had an obligation to Rice," Dyer said. "Being near those kids in a weakened condition could kill him."

Rice, who taught for five years at Independent Hill School, was diagnosed as having acquired immune deficiency syndrome in October 1986. AIDS is caused by a virus that attacks and destroys the body's immune system, leaving its victims vulnerable to a variety of illnesses and cancers. The virus is spread through intimate sexual contact, contaminated hypodermic needles and infected blood, and it can remain dormant in the body for years before becoming active enough to cause AIDS.

School Board members said they considered several factors in the case of the student allowed back into class last month.

For one thing, "The virus the kid has is not full-blown," Price said. The child has tested positive for exposure to the virus but, according to health officials, has no symptoms of the disease.

In addition, the student is considered mature enough to have control over her body fluids, and "we didn't think the child would be fighting," Price added.

The case is to be reevaluated this month and again in May, as specified by the School Board's policy.

Rice dropped his lawsuit in June under conditions that are a matter of dispute. According to attorney Labowitz, he reached an "implicit understanding" with School Board members that Rice would remain on the payroll with full benefits, including health insurance.

But according to Dyer and Cleary, the board has no agreement to keep Rice on paid administrative leave indefinitely. If Rice were to become disabled, he would go off the county payroll and receive state disability payments, Dyer said.

Rice's case will be reevaluated in March when all teachers are told whether their contracts will be renewed, according to Cleary.

Unlike the highly publicized Rice case, the School Board's actions with regard to the student have drawn little reaction in Prince William or beyond. Schools Superintendent Edward L. Kelly said he has received about five telephone calls from other school systems interested in the school system's AIDS policy.

Board members say their phones have been quiet on the matter. But board Vice Chairman Maureen Caddigan predicted: "We'll have some parents very unhappy because we've admitted this child."

Nevertheless, she noted, "The community has to be educated. Parents mustn't be frightened that an AIDS child is sitting 'next to my Susie, my Johnny.'"