Two Montgomery County teachers with acquired immune deficiency syndrome have died in the last 13 months, leading public school officials to devise a temporary policy on AIDS that would remove a teacher or student who has the condition from the classroom.
At a hastily called press conference yesterday, school officials said they also would require that any teacher suspected of having AIDS be tested for the condition, which federal authorities say cannot be spread through casual contact. None of the other Washington area jurisdictions requires those tests.
"This is a new disease and that's part of the problem," said Bill Henry, a spokesman for Montgomery County Schools. "Until we know how it's transmitted, we will take the conservative, cautious route."
The temporary policy is stricter than that recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control, which says a student with AIDS need not be removed from the classroom because the condition can be spread only through intimate sexual contact or by exposure to contaminated blood and not through casual contact. AIDS is a condition that destroys the body's immune system, leaving it open to infections and other diseases.
Henry said that Superintendent Wilmer Cody decided to establish a temporary policy on AIDS in the schools until the school board formally adopts a policy on the condition sometime later this month.
In a prepared statement released yesterday, Cody said that until a formal policy on AIDS is adopted, he will "place a teacher in a nonclassroom assignment, and a student on homebound instruction."
School officials said they learned through a television news report Monday night that Norman Alfred Brown, a popular math teacher at Takoma Park Junior High School who died last summer, had been a victim of AIDS.
Then yesterday they checked the death certificates of all teachers who had died since 1982 and found that Dr. Melvin Davis, a teacher at Richard Montgomery High School, also died of AIDS on Sept. 20, 1984.
Brown's death certificate said the primary cause of death was respiratory failure, and lists as secondary causes of death skin cancer and AIDS, and Davis' death certificate listed pneumonia as the cause of death but also noted that he had AIDS, according to Henry.
Alexandria is the only local jurisdiction that routinely checks the death certificates of teachers. School officials in Fairfax County, Arlington, the District and Prince George's County said they do not plan to check death certificates of teachers for an AIDS-related death.
Mark Simon, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, which represents the county's teachers, said he supports Cody's interim policy on AIDS.
"They are taking a conservative and judicious position," Simon said. "I would not support some kind of wholesale testing of teachers or students but where there is evidence that a teacher might have AIDS then it is appropriate to get all of the medical information we can."
Nancy Roth, executive director of the Gay Rights National Lobby, said testing teachers suspected of having AIDS is "an invasion of privacy." Roth said the test "serves almost no medical purpose" because it only shows if someone has been exposed to the virus and not if the person is infected with AIDS.
And, because AIDS can only be transmitted through intimate sexual contact or exchange of blood products, "teachers are of negligible risk to students or colleagues."
Davis began working for the school system in 1976 and took a year off to obtain a graduate degree. When he returned to the school system in 1978, he taught anatomy and physiology at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville. He also was a yearbook adviser at the school, and last year's yearbook was dedicated to him.
Teachers at Takoma Park said they suspected Brown, 39, might have AIDS. He had told them he had skin cancer.
Roy Settles, dean of students at Takoma Park and a friend of Brown's, said, "It crossed our minds. We felt we might be at risk but, we said, if that's the case and he has AIDS, we can't desert him." Settles said Brown never brought up the subject of AIDS.
Several parents at the school, which this year changed its name to Takoma Park Intermediate School, said they are not too concerned their children are at risk because Brown was their teacher.
"In Al's case, I would have rather had my kids in his class and take any risk involved," said Martha Steinbock, who is president of the PTA and had two daughters in Brown's class last year.