Students returned to school on Monday in Miami amid a new concern: the threat of Zika. Nine schools in Miami-Dade County are in or near a zone where nearly a month ago health officials confirmed that mosquitoes are spreading the virus.
One of them, Jose de Diego Middle School, is in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood, an area known for its restaurants, cafes and street art. It’s also home to middle-class and low-income families, many newly arrived from Venezuela, Cuba and Haiti.
Over the weekend, school officials distributed cans of mosquito repellent to parents and made long-sleeved shirts and pants available to students. For the past month, the county has conducted intensive spraying and outreach. While health officials are optimistic about their efforts to control mosquitoes in this neighborhood, on Friday they said that Zika has now spread to another neighborhood several miles away, on Miami Beach.
The start of the school year is always hectic. The principal of Jose de Diego Middle School, April Thompson-Williams, says Zika leaves parents with even more questions. “They just want to know how to protect their children and to ensure that they’re safe when they come to school,” she says.
Kenyanna Darden brought her daughter, Jaynela, to school today. She says the school district seems to have a good plan in place to protect students. “They sent text messages, emails, voicemail, all that, all day, every day,” she says. The message? “Protect yourself, wear ‘Off’ spray.”
Another parent, Nicole Pugh, still has some worries after dropping her daughter off at school. “Yeah, I worry about it,” she says. “But I made sure she was sprayed and everything. So hopefully, they’ll take care of the situation.”
Superintendent Alberto Carvalho was visiting schools in both of Miami’s Zika transmission zones today, spreading the message that students should wear repellent, long-sleeved shirts, long pants — and that they should be in school. “Every single school is air-conditioned. Every single bus is air-conditioned,” he says. “There is no contact with areas that have standing water. And kids are well-protected in air-conditioned areas. They’re going to be fine.” Carvalho says recess and sports will go on as usual.
Cyd Browne began her 7th-grade engineering class today with a challenge. She asked her students to design a plan to protect an area from mosquitoes that carry Zika. “We’re going to look to see the science behind this, do our research and then come up with a solution to make sure everyone knows to spill the water wherever there’s standing water and to drain and cover,” she says. Every teacher at Jose de Diego Middle school started today with a Zika information session.
For children and anyone who’s not pregnant, the symptoms associated with Zika are usually mild. Most people don’t even know they’ve had the disease. But the chief of Emergency Medicine at Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital, Bobby Kapur, says that from a public health standpoint it’s crucial that students be protected. “We have hundreds, maybe thousands of students clustered in one area,” he says, adding that any student infected through a mosquito bite could bring that infection back into their homes and communities.
Controlling the spread of Zika is a major challenge. Along with the two zones already identified, health officials say they’re investigating possible cases of Zika transmission in several other areas in South Florida.