School Climate & Safety

School Mail Now Eyed More Closely Because of Bioterrorism Cases

By Darcia Harris Bowman — November 14, 2001 5 min read

Many school districts across the country have tightened their procedures for handling mail in response to the recent anthrax attacks through the U.S. Postal Service.

To begin with, most districts have distributed the Postal Service’s guidelines for identifying and handling potentially dangerous letters or packages. Others have taken additional measures, such as giving rubber gloves and dust masks to employees who open the mail, and ordering schools to prohibit students from opening mail or being near the area in the school where mail is processed.

In Kentucky, the 33,000-student Fayette County schools are doing all that and more.

Less than a month ago, the mail was sorted in the principal’s office of each of the Lexington, Ky.-based district’s 53 schools, usually in the morning by a group of 15 to 20 different people that included students. But since Oct. 17, when a middle school employee picked up an envelope that was leaking white powder, opening the mail has become a solitary chore that confines a single employee to a school restroom with a pair of rubber gloves, a Ziploc baggie, and a cellphone or walkie-talkie.

“It might seem like we’re being a little too stringent, and we realize the likelihood of being targeted for bioterrorism is minimal,” said Myron Q. Thompson, the district’s risk manager. “But when you’re dealing with 33,000 students—somebody else’s children—you can’t not take as many prudent measures as possible.”

Tests revealed that the white powder found in the envelope sent to the middle school did not contain anthrax bacteria.

Still, after the false alarm, Fayette County district officials told schools to pick one person and an alternate to open the mail. A district memo advised those employees to “keep a change of clothing (sweat pants), towel, and other personal items such as purses and keys in the administrative office,” and sort mail at the end of the school day when it would be easier to evacuate students if a suspicious letter or package was found.

New guidelines sent to principals last month also suggested that schools open mail in a faculty restroom. That way, if the designated mail opener has to be quarantined, he or she will have a toilet and running water to make the stay more comfortable.

Finally, the district says, the designated employee should hang a “Do Not Enter” sign on the door before he or she begins sorting the mail.

Some school officials were concerned by news earlier this month that traces of anthrax-causing bacteria had been found well beyond Florida and New Jersey and the cities of Washington and New York, where the most serious incidents of contamination have occurred. The bacteria turned up this month at an Indianapolis company that repairs mail equipment and at a Postal Service stamp-processing building in Kansas City, Mo.

But well before this fall’s incidents, whose origins were still under investigation last week, the 41,000- student Indianapolis school system had updated its rules for responding to anthrax threats to include new guidance from the Postal Service and local health agencies.

At each school or district building, “mail should be opened only by one or two designated persons,” according to a recent district memo. “Mail should be opened in a predesignated, separate location away from normal office traffic and certainly in an area away from students.”

And in bold print: “Under no circumstances should students be permitted to handle any mail.”

In fact, students in the Indianapolis district haven’t been allowed to handle the mail since a 1998 anthrax scare at a nearby private school, according to district spokeswoman Mary Louise Scheid.

“But we’re really clamping down on that rule now,” she said.

Employees in a number of the district’s 79 schools have taken to wearing rubber gloves when sorting and opening the mail, Ms. Scheid said. But they got that idea from the television news, she added, not from the superintendent’s office.

In Florida, the 249,000-student Broward County district gave principals ample instructions last month on what constitutes suspicious mail and how to handle such packages.

The same memo also tries to reassure anyone stuck with the job of sorting the mail that the potential dangers are minimal. “Anthrax is not spread from one person to another person” and “prompt recognition and treatment are effective,” reads a bold-print line in the Oct. 12 memo.

“In the days following the outbreak down in Boca Raton ... we had five or six white-powder incidents a day,” said Kirk Englehardt, the director of community relations for the Broward County schools. “At one school, it was [nondairy coffee creamer], vanilla-pudding mix at another. We had one right here in the communications office.”

The scares left some employees jittery, Mr. Englehardt said, and it’s not unusual to see secretaries wearing rubber gloves now when they handle mail.

“It’s not encouraged or discouraged, but if someone wants to wear latex gloves, we support them,” he said. “I’d probably wear gloves if I had that job.”

Schools in the Boca Raton, Fla., area, where the first in the spate of anthrax incidents occurred, have been especially cautious in processing mail.

Reasonable Vigilance

Some districts are taking a slightly more relaxed approach to guarding against the potential for mail-delivered bioterrorism.

Atlanta’s 98 city schools are still receiving their mail in a timely fashion, and few employees have expressed concerns about anthrax, according to Norman Thomas, the director of school services for the 60,000-student district.

“We asked our schools to arrange to have latex gloves and masks available to the employees whose primary responsibilities are to receive, sort, and distribute the mail,” Mr. Thomas said. “We’re saying make it available, but we’re not saying, ‘You must do this.’”

In New York City, where a hospital employee died of anthrax this month after being contaminated by an unknown source, district officials are urging employees to be careful when handling the mail, but reasonable.

In mid- October, Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy sent a memorandum to all superintendents, principals, and other administrators in the 1.1 million- student district advising them on how to identify suspicious mail. That includes any package with no return address, excessive postage, unusual shape or odor, oily stains, a weight inconsistent with its size, or an item marked “personal” or “confidential.”

The memo advises anyone who comes into contact with a suspicious package to leave that piece of mail where it was found, evacuate the room, wash hands with soap, and call the police.

But the chancellor also ended his letter with the same refrain issuing from the nation’s capital in the weeks since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the anthrax incidents: Be aware, but go on with business as usual.

“I would like to stress that we have not received any indication that there is a need for specific concern about our students and staff,” Mr. Levy wrote. “I do, however, join with local and national officials in the call for everyone to remain vigilant and aware of their surroundings.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as School Mail Now Eyed More Closely Because of Bioterrorism Cases

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