Back-to-school under the Zika threat
The race out the door, forgotten lunches, goodbye hugs and more than a few tears. These are the first day of school rituals across the country.
In Miami, parents added something new this year: bug spray. Lots and lots of bug spray.
"You can never be too safe," said Irene Fister as she sprayed her daughter Amanda outside South Pointe Elementary in Miami Beach before walking her to her first day of second grade.
The school lies just south of the Zika transmission zone in South Beach, one of two areas in Miami-Dade where locally spread cases of the virus have been reported. Parents were not taking any chances.
On Monday morning, some parents carried cans of insect repellent as they lugged book bags and plastic bins with school supplies.
The Florida Department of Health stationed a representative near the school's entrance to hand cans of spray and boxes of repellent towelettes to parents, along with fact cards on the Zika virus.
At Jose de Diego Middle School in the Wynwood area, Miami’s other Zika transmission zone, the first lesson of the year was Zika 101.
Cyd Brown, an engineering teacher at the school, began Monday's class with the chapter of "mysterious mosquitoes."
"We are looking at Zika from both a scientist's angle, and an engineering angle, because engineers solve problems," Brown said. "So we are going to look at the science behind all this, do our research and then come up with a solution to take back into the neighborhood to make sure that everyone knows to spill the water and to drain and cover."
"What are some things you already know about Zika?" she asked the class.
Several hands went up.
"You get a rash," one student said, jumping out of her chair.
Another student: "It damages babies' health."
Another: "It's spread by mosquitoes."
Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho sat at a desk in the back row of the class. He brainstormed with his "classmates" on what some symptoms might be, sharing a mini dry-erase board with 13-year-old Christian Zelaya.
"Look, Zika is a threat, but not a threat to young kids," he told reporters. "It is a threat to pregnant women. They are fine. Schools are the safest and best places for them to be at. I'm not hearing deep concerns from parents. They want the information, and we have curriculum for the kids and the parents alike. So yes, protection, preparation, but no panic."
Before class, Department of Health officials staffed booths as parents lined up to get free repellent. Some parents placed the repellent in their child's bag, while others sprayed it right on.
"Ouch mom, it's in my eyes," said 12-year-old Valerie Castaneda as her 13-year-old brother, Alexander, laughed. "Get it out!"
Her mother, Marisol Castaneda, said she's doing her best to "protect my kids, but to not overwhelm them either."
Carvalho said the county "decided to err on a side of caution" by distributing thousands of long-sleeved uniforms to parents in the Wynwood and Miami Beach areas who may not be able to afford them. This week, the school system will be receiving 25,000 canisters of repellent to give away to parents.
I can't even feel my body. I feel heavy and like I'm burning. I'm looking forward to my favorite class, P.E., where you HAVE to change clothes.
Jose de Diego Middle School student Jose Lara
For some parents, concerns over Zika mean adding a new battle to the morning routine — the fight over long-sleeved shirts.
Rosa Portilla and her 12-year-old son Jose Lara said they had a major disagreement before heading to school.
"He didn't want to put on the two sweaters. Reality is, he has too. It's a very serious matter," she said of her son, who sported a long-sleeved white shirt under a thick red and white checkered fleece hoodie.
"I can't even feel my body. I feel heavy and like I'm burning. I'm looking forward to my favorite class, P.E., where you have to change clothes," Jose said with a grin.
Elizabeth Penton, an incoming seventh-grader, sported a light jean jacket at her mother’s insistence.
"I'm very worried. I don't want my little girl to get sick, or me for that matter. I told her to not take off her sweater the whole day, no matter how hot it may get,” Lucy Penton said. “Until we know more about Zika we have to just do what we can.”
Children, meanwhile, were more concerned about making it through the first day of new classes.
I'm excited for school, Zika or no Zika. I feel amazing.
Jose de Diego seventh grader Elizabeth Penton
"I'm excited for school, Zika or no Zika. I feel amazing," Elizabeth said with a wide smile.
Sixth-grader Ashley Rodgers agreed that the virus came second to classwork.
"I have special repellent with a lot of DEET. But honestly there are more important things to worry about, like school, passing the grade without having to take intensive classes,” she said.
Public health officials and the Miami-Dade school district have been distributing information about the virus since locally spread cases were first reported at the end of July. But it’s the questions that don’t yet have definitive answers that worry some parents.
“I think [the school district is] doing everything they can,” said Amy Simons, who has a daughter entering 11th grade at Design and Architecture Senior High, DASH, one of the schools in the affected area. “My worry is more with the general question of what does this really mean. I understand we're doing everything preventative, but what are the long-terms effects?”
The concerns did not appear to keep parents from sending their children to school, however. Attendance at schools in the affected areas was higher than last year, Superintendent Carvalho said at a press conference marking the end of the school day.
“It seems that there was no significant impact [on attendance] specific to this threat,” he said. “I’m happy to report that the very first day of school was executed flawlessly. Buses ran on time, our attendance reached 334,800 students, it’s actually a little higher than it was last year at this time.”
Broward County Public Schools also reported a smooth start to the year and an increase in enrollment. The district welcomed back over 271,000 students on Monday at 337 schools across the county.