Despite Zika threat, Wynwood schools to remain open when new school year begins

Students walk in the courtyard of Jose de Diego Middle School, a school that is located within the Wynwood neighborhood, where the majority of locally acquired Zika cases are.
Students walk in the courtyard of Jose de Diego Middle School, a school that is located within the Wynwood neighborhood, where the majority of locally acquired Zika cases are. Miami Herald File Photo

Public schools in the Wynwood area will remain open when students return to classes on Aug. 22, although the district is keeping the option open of relocating them as a worst-case scenario.

But while students who attend school in the Zika zone of Wynwood and Midtown can expect to return to the same buildings, a few things will be different on the first day of classes. For one, Florida Department of Health officials will be stationed at each of the six schools in the affected area to answer questions and monitor school grounds for mosquito breeding areas.

Students will also be attending classes in long-sleeved shirts and pants in spite of the summer heat. Schools within the one-square-mile area north of downtown Miami where locally spread Zika cases have been reported are relaxing their uniform policies, encouraging children to cover up to ward off mosquito bites — even if their protective gear does not match the school uniform colors.

Pants and long-sleeved shirts, which may not be on most parents’ back-to-school shopping lists, will be provided by the district to students whose families cannot afford them. The district hopes to distribute the clothing items free of charge at schools in the Wynwood area next week, Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told the Miami Herald.

The only wrinkle left to iron out before school starts is whether mosquito repellent will be allowed in classrooms.

Miami-Dade currently bans the application of repellent in schools in case students are allergic to the spray. Carvalho said the district plans to reevaluate and “solidify” its policy before the start of the new year based on information provided by state and federal health officials.

At a conference call Gov. Rick Scott hosted with Florida superintendents on Thursday to discuss Zika preparedness, Florida Surgeon General Celeste Philip said the state is putting together information on insect repellent so that school districts can evaluate whether to allow repellent to be applied in classrooms.

For the time being, Miami-Dade is encouraging the "aggressive application" of insect repellent at home before school, Carvalho told School Board members this week at its Wednesday meeting.

More than 4,000 Miami-Dade students attend schools within the area affected by the Zika virus: Paul Laurence Dunbar, Eneida M. Hartner and Phillis Wheatley elementary schools, Jose de Diego Middle School, Design & Architecture Senior High and Young Men’s Preparatory Academy. Miami Arts Charter School is also opening up a new campus in Wynwood this year.

The virus is also a threat to Miami-Dade Schools employees, particularly those who might be pregnant. Pregnant women are most at risk from Zika because the virus can be transmitted from a pregnant woman to her fetus, which can cause microcephaly, a condition that can lead to a baby being born with a smaller head and potential brain damage.

The district is considering transferring pregnant employees who work in the affected area to other schools, Carvalho said. Miami-Dade is encouraging pregnant teachers and staff members to contact the district and the Florida Department of Health to get information about protective measures and Zika testing.

“The best preventive tool we have is aggressive awareness and communication, early, consistently and often,” Carvalho said at Wednesday’s School Board meeting.

With the first day of classes around the corner, the district will continue to consult with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health agencies on a daily basis. Miami-Dade will also continue clearing schools of standing water, which serves as mosquito breeding grounds.

Although shipping students to schools outside the affected area is still an option, the district is evaluating whether this would help stem the spread of the virus since many of the students who attend school in the affected area live nearby.

"The school location itself is almost irrelevant; it's where the students live that makes a difference," Carvalho said. "Operationally we're able to do it. The decision is by doing that are we reducing the threat level in any way?"

Miami-Dade College, which has two campuses within a mile of Wynwood, is also working to clear its campus of potential mosquito breeding areas.

Miami Dade College spokeswoman Hessy Fernandez said the college has contacted the county's mosquito control division to request additional spraying and has tested lakes and ponds on its campuses for mosquito larvae levels.

As of Thursday, there were 25 cases of locally transmitted Zika reported in South Florida. Public health officials believe the spread of the virus is still limited to a small area in and around Wynwood.

Although state and local officials are concerned about the spread of the virus, they also plan to use Zika as a teaching opportunity. The Florida Department of Education is distributing educational materials to more than 180,000 teachers across the state so they can teach their students how to prevent the virus.

The educational materials, which were developed with the Florida Department of Health, "are crafted in a way that could be easily incorporated into science lessons," Surgeon General Philip said on the conference call with Scott.

"Any time we face a threat like this, whether we're talking about a natural threat like a hurricane, swimming safety, or any type of disease that may be a threat to our student population or workforce, we do our best to incorporate it as part of the curriculum," Carvalho said.

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