Dongola School Reopens, Minus a Few Students

More than two weeks after a mysterious rash outbreak began in the Dongola School District, class is once again back in session.  But many students are being kept at home, until the source of the outbreak is identified.
Since January 10th, at least twenty students and four teachers have come down with an itchy rash, with some experiencing other symptoms ranging from headaches and nausea to even breathing problems.  The outbreak has already shut down the school twice.  Both the Illinois State Health Department and the EPA have tested inside the building for environmental problems, and the tests have come up clean.  Nonetheless, many Dongola parents say they’re not ready to give up their quest for an answer.

On Monday night, parents got the chance to talk with a state health official who studies contagious outbreaks.  Epidemiologist Chuck Jennings told the concerned parents that he does not believe the Dongola outbreak is an infectious virus.  But, he says his role is to determine that belief to be a fact.  To help Jennings do that, school officials are asking every parent in the district to fill out a survey, listing all their children’s symptoms since the end of December. Jennings will compile the surveys and analyze the data, looking for common threads that could help identify the mysterious illness.  Jennings also plans to do a blood test on one 6th grader who has been hit hard by the outbreak. 

But Jennings is not completely optimistic that he’ll be able to come up with a definitive answer.  He told those attending Monday night’s meeting that he has encountered similar situations at other Illinois schools, and few of the mysteries have ever been solved.  “Up until June of 2002, 27 states have reported these kinds of outbreaks from about 110 schools around the nation,” he explains.  “We’ve had around 11 incidents in Illinois since these rashes had first been reported…they basically remain a mystery.  No definitive causes have been found.  In a couple of instances, there has been a virus isolated which is called Parvo Virus-19.”  But because Parvo does not tend to present with any other symptoms, Jennings does not believe the virus is to blame in Dongola.
That information left many parents scratching their heads, and questioning the accuracy of EPA’s tests inside the school.  “If you have an non-contagious problem and the school is fine, then can you tell me why all these children are sick?” one woman questioned Jennings.  “It has to be either one or the other.”  Some parents said they would like the school to be re-tested, in a different way.  “The ventilation system had been shut down from October until the week the outbreak started,” explains parent Bruce Lannom.  “Then the school turned it back on, and when the EPA came in to test, the ventilation system was running again.  We think they should test it with the ventilation turned off, and then see what they find.”  Other parents mentioned that they would like to see the school building tested for formaldehyde, which the EPA did not do.  Still others would like to see OSHA, the Occupational and Health Safety Administration, come in to do their own check of the school building’s indoor air quality.  On Monday night, Superintendent Richard Reavis signed the paperwork that will hopefully bring OSHA in.
In the meantime, school officials are leaving it up to parents’ discretion whether or not they send their kids back to the building.  Classes will continue, but students will not be punished for being absent.  Some parents say teachers have been going the extra mile to keep absent students caught up on their schoolwork.  Parents Jeff and Patti Williamson left Monday night’s meeting still determined to keep their kids out of class, but not upset with the school district’s actions.  “We want to express our gratitude that Chuck Jennings came here tonight,” they told Heartland News.  “We still want answers just like every other parent.  All we can do is fill out the survey, so our information can be added to the other information, and hopefully they’ll be able to come up with an answer.”
Jennings expected it would take one week to obtain the results of the survey.