Courts Deny Unions' Demand To Bar Herpes Students
Courts in Iowa and Maryland last week denied requests from local teachers' unions to bar two children with herpes from attending school, sparking parents to withdraw their children from class in protest.
In a similar incident in Sacramento, Calif., a group of parents at one of the city's schools also kept their children home last week because a 4-year-old child with a herpes-related virus was admitted to a special-education class in the school.
Knowledgeable physicians said last week, however, that the risk of other children being infected by the virus in the classroom is "negligible." And a specialist at the national Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta termed the fears of teachers and parents more "dangerous" than the risk of transmitting the disease.
Courts Step In
In Council Bluffs, Iowa, U.S. District Judge Donald O'Brien ruled in Council Bluffs Education Association v. Council Bluffs Community School District that a 3-year-old handicapped girl with herpes could enroll in a special-education class. But he also prescribed specific precautions that must be taken to keep the girl away from school when her herpes is active.
It was the first time a case concerning herpes in a school setting had come before a federal court, an attorney involved with the case said.
James Sayre, attorney for the teachers, had argued in part that teachers and children would be denied equal protection if the child with herpes were allowed to attend class and that teachers and parents were denied due process because they were not involved in the staffing decisions to place the child.
In Maryland, a state judge in Anne Arundel County signed a temporary order that will allow a handicapped 3-year-old boy with herpes to attend a special-education class until a hearing on the matter can be held this week.
Echoing the federal judge in Iowa, the Maryland court ordered that precautions be taken to limit the possibility the virus would spread.
Each day, the afflicted children must arrive at school with a parent, the courts said, and be examined by the school nurse or other trained personnel for herpes symptoms.
The Iowa judge ruled that the girl may not attend class if any symptoms are apparent. But in Maryland, the boy may not attend only if he has an open herpes lesion on either hand; he is required to wear a one-piece jumpsuit, or similar attire, so that any sores on others parts of his body will be covered while he is at school.
Students Stay Home
Although the Iowa teachers dropped their complaint after the ruling, more than half of the students at the school where the child will enroll stayed home early in the week because of the decision.
William Lepley, superintendent of Council Bluffs Community Schools, said, "I think some parents thought it would change the decision or discourage the mother from sending the child." Fear was also a factor, he said.
Mr. Sayre said the teachers' main concern was for the other children in the class who "can't protect themselves" from the virus.
In both Iowa and Maryland, the two teachers who would have taught the afflicted children asked for and received transfers.
In Maryland, the afflicted boy's five classmates in the special-education class stayed home.
'Minimally Contagious' Virus
Physicians describe herpes as an acute viral infection of the skin characterized by blisters, or lesions, which usually appear around the lips and genitals. There are two common types.
Type I often takes the form of cold sores on the mouth but can appear elsewhere, including on the genitals. Type II--commonly known as "genital herpes" and generally the more serious of the two--usually occurs on the genitals but can also appear elsewhere. It has not been clearly determined which type the two children have.
Two experts on herpes said last week that the virus is "minimally contagious" in the school environment and that the risk school children run of contracting it from other children is "almost negligible." Both doctors said children who have herpes lesions need not stay away from school but should have open lesions covered.
Exposure Said Widespread
"The concerns are out of proportion to the threat involved," said Dr. Mervyn L. Elgart, chairman of the dermatology department at the George Washington University Medical School in Washington. "Herpes is a common infection."
Dr. Elgart said that possibly up to 60 percent of children are exposed to the virus by the age of 10. "Children do get this disease," he said. "If you look for it you will find it."
"If you look at the people in the subways and buses, many have it," he added. "Most keep coming to work and it doesn't alter the status of the rest of us. But if you start to screen kids, then you must start screening teachers, and before long you're going to have a monster.''
Another specialist, Dr. Ward Cates, director of the division of sexually transmitted diseases at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, said that as many as 5 percent of school-aged children have a herpes virus in their saliva because they have been exposed to it. It is not known why some get the blisters and some do not.
Most children get the virus through intimate contact with family members, such as by kissing parents who have cold sores. A very small number are infected at birth by passing through an infected birth canal.
Dr. Cates agreed that the risk of the disease being transmitted in the school setting is negligible.
'Culprit Is Paranoia'
"The main culprit is the paranoia about the word herpes," Dr. Cates said.
"There is greater danger in overreacting to the term than there is in the possible transmission of the virus in the school setting," he said.
He said no statistics are yet available to chart whether the virus has become more prevalent in children or whether its incidence will increase in children as it spreads among adults.