One Union City girl had an inkling that something was wrong in her school on Monday when her substitute teacher gave all the kids hand sanitizer to use before lunch.
Despite her suspicion, Jennifer Jimenez, a seventh grader at Robert Waters School, said she was shocked to learn that one student had been hospitalized due to the H1N1 influenza (swine flu) and that her school would be closed for the rest of the week.
“We were all surprised,” she said. She had heard about serious cases, including a death, in New York, but never expected her school to be shut down because of the swine flu.
On Monday, school officials held a press conference to announce the impending closure. In addition to the one confirmed case, rumored to be a second grader, five other students at the school were exhibiting flu-like symptoms and were also tested for the illness. Four of those cases have been confirmed to be the swine flu. Officials also announced that all the children are from the same grade and class; however, they would not say which grade or class. The school serves 1,250 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
“We realized that we had a job to do, to really look into how we could protect our students immediately.” – Stanley Sanger
“We realized that we had a job to do, to really look into how we could protect our students immediately,” said Superintendent of Schools Stanley Sanger. He added that a cleaning crew was brought in on Saturday to disinfect the school.
The closing of the school started Tuesday, May 19 with class to resume on Tuesday, May 26.
“We are doing this as a precautionary step to protect the health, the safety, and well-being of all our students, staff, and, of course, the surrounding community,” said Sanger. He added that the infected student had not been in school for five days, and including the weekend, the period that other students were not exposed to that particular child was actually seven days.
“We felt relieved about that and it gave us time to come into school today and assess and evaluate the situation and not make a quick, hasty decision that might not benefit all involved,” said Sanger.
Some parents on Monday said they wondered why officials did not close the school earlier.
“They should notify all the Union City schools now because if it is in this school, it might be in other schools too,” said Pauline Jimenez, Jennifer’s mother. She added that she is concerned about another daughter in the school system, at Union City High School North.
School officials did mail out a letter to parents and staff that explained the situation, stating, “please be assured that while H1N1 in New Jersey is cause for concern, at this point, there is not cause for alarm.” In the letter, officials also announced that there would be health professionals available at the school to answer the questions of any parent or community member concerned about the swine flu or seeking more information on where to get screened for the illness.
“The city is working diligently and closely with the Board of Education, as well as state, local, and county health departments and public safety departments to ensure that we safeguard our student population, our staff, our teachers, as well as their families,” said Commissioner Christopher Irizarry, who is also the president and CEO of the North Hudson Community Action Corporation, a local health clinic for low-income families whose staff members helped out during the week.
On Tuesday, town officials said they also planned to have an automated phone call to all parents with kids in Union City schools as well as a 24-hour hotline connected to the Robert Waters School nurse’s office: (201) 348-5925. In addition, they announced that personnel at every school would be calling home to all the parents of students who are currently absent from school to make sure they are receiving the proper treatment if they are exhibiting signs of the swine flu. The town has also arranged for a mobile testing unit to be present outside the school starting when school is back in session to whenever necessary.
“I want the public to know that I am fully committed to offering every available resource to protect the health of local residents,” said Mayor Brian Stack.
Amanda Staab can be reached at email@example.com.