At best, kids will be uncomfortably hot. At worst, they’ll have to go to school somewhere else.
Those are the possibilities as thousands of schoolchildren prepare to go back to six schools in or near the Zika-threat zone. The virus spread by a tiny mosquito could cause huge disruptions in the state’s largest school system.
Almost 400,000 students, teachers and school employees return to the classroom on Aug. 22. With the local spread of Zika confirmed in Miami-Dade County this week, back-to-school preparations suddenly include fresh haircuts, new sneakers — and mosquito protection.
District leaders are currently scouring school sites for mosquito breeding grounds, sending testing kits to pregnant employees and contemplating changes in outdoor physical education schedules. In a worst-case scenario, last-resort plans are being drawn up to temporarily ship kids to schools outside the affected areas.
“We stand ready,” said school board member Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, who represents schools inside the Zika transmission area.
For parents, combating Zika in the back-to-school season may prove difficult. Mosquito repellent isn’t allowed in schools out of concerns that children could have allergic reactions. Though district leaders are reconsidering the policy, for now they are urging parents to dress children in long sleeves and pants even as temperatures hover in the 90s.
“I have three of my own who would probably kill me if I told them, in August, I’m putting them in long sleeve shirts,” said Alvin Gainey, Miami-Dade PTA president. “I would feel a little bad, but in the long term I’d feel better knowing they’re more protected.”
State health officials on Aug. 2 confirmed that Zika is being spread by local mosquitoes within a one-square-mile area in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood. The virus poses a threat to pregnant women as it has been found to cause birth defects and neurological disorders.
In the broader population, Zika is generally not dangerous, and many people may not even realize they’ve been infected. Symptoms include fever, red eyes and joint pain.
Officials are monitoring six Miami-Dade public schools that are either within or very close to the local transmission area. They are:
▪ Paul Laurence Dunbar Elementary, 505 NW 20th Street
▪ Jose de Diego Middle, 3100 NW Fifth Avenue
▪ Eneida M. Hartner Elementary, 401 NW 29th Street
▪ Phyllis Wheatley Elementary, 1801 NW First Place
▪ Design and Architecture Senior High, 4001 NE Second Avenue
▪ Young Men’s Preparatory Academy, 3001 NW Second Avenue
Superintendent Alberto Carvalho stressed that the schools have been inspected for standing water or other potential breeding sources for the mosquito. The campuses have all been declared safe and, as of Wednesday, county leaders and health department officials have made the decision not to fumigate there.
In any case, spraying isn’t as effective when it comes to fighting the specific mosquito that spreads Zika, which thrives in hard-to-reach crevices abundant in urban environments.
Once the school year starts, outdoor activities like recess and PE may have to be rescheduled around times when mosquitoes are less likely to bite. Carvalho said schools are working with employees who work outside to make sure they’re protected.
“It’s about prevention. It’s about precaution,” Carvalho said.
For now, district policies treat mosquito repellent like a medication and children shouldn’t bring it to school. While district leaders reconsider the policy, they are urging parents to spray their children before school.
Kids shouldn’t get repellent on their own hands, according to recommendations from the Environmental Protection Agency, which also assures that products with DEET are considered safe for little ones.
Since kids probably won’t be able to reapply repellent while in school, there are long-lasting insecticides parents may want to consider. Dorothy Contiguglia-Akcan, a travel health specialist at Florida International University’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, recommended using a product called permethrin. Once it’s applied to clothes, the repellent lasts for up to five washes.
“That works well,” she said. “If I had a kid in school, I would spray it on the uniform.”
The threat of Zika may mean more flexibility when it comes to school uniform policies. For example, district leaders are considering whether to allow children to wear non-uniform, long sleeve shirts under their school polos. That option has obvious downsides.
Long sleeve shirts aren’t typical back-to-school supplies for South Florida families. Carvalho said the district will work with uniform vendors to help families who may not be able to afford the unexpected school supplies. Officials could also tap a newly established state fund to pay for uniforms.
Getting kids to actually wear them is a different story. Dhavynia Anduray has a son in pre-kindergarten in West Dade, an area that has so far been Zika-free.
“I don’t think he would go for that because he’s kind of active and I would feel bad because of the heat,” she said. “That would be more uncomfortable for him.”
Gainey, the PTA president, acknowledged the difficulty but said it’s up to parents to explain the importance of prevention.
“The best thing we can do at this point is to start the process of educating our children. . . . So that they know there’s a reason why I’m going to be uncomfortable for maybe a couple of weeks,” he said.
Children aren’t at any particular risk for complications from Zika. The concern is that kids, just like adults, could contribute to the spread of Zika if they are bitten by infected mosquitoes. It’s an especially sensitive issue in the classroom, where the vast majority of teachers are women, and many are of child-bearing age.
“That’s definitely a concern,” Contiguglia-Akcan said. “The most important thing is to protect ourselves . . . so we can protect the community.”