Mysterious Rash Shuts Down Entire Heartland School

A mystery is baffling parents, school leaders and even health officials in one Southern Illinois town.

At least fifteen students and two teachers in the Dongola Elementary School have developed a mysterious rash since Monday, and nobody knows why.  Wednesday night, the school board decided to shut down the entire school, grades K-12, as a precautionary measure, while health officials try to determine where the rash of problems is coming from. 

According to Dongola Superintendent Dr. Richard Reavis, the school has already called in the Union County Health Department twice to check for environmental triggers.  So far they haven’t been able to pinpoint any possible sources.  The Illinois State Health Department will be visiting the school on Friday to make its own evaluation.  And in the meantime, school janitors are disinfecting the school’s elementary wing for the third and fourth times. 

That's all news that concerned parents say they’re glad to hear.  But until someone can come up with an explanation of what's causing the outbreak, at least one family says they'll continue to worry.

“We're concerned because this almost cost him his life,” say Jeff and Patti Williamson, parents of sixth-grader Jeffrey.  As a sufferer of asthma and allergies, Jeffrey Williamson is probably the student who has suffered most from Dongola Elementary School's mysterious outbreak. Since he first broke out in a rash on Monday, Jeffrey has already been rushed to the emergency room two times.  “When I got called to the school on Monday, Jeffrey looked like he'd been dropped in a hot tub of boiling water,” says Patti.  “He was red from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet.  Every part of his body was red.” 

On Wednesday evening, you could only see traces of what has been described as itchy, red blotches that vanish as mysteriously as they appear. But Jeff and Patti Williamson point out that the rash has been the least of their son's problems.  “The rash we could've lived with. We could've treated him for that,” says Patti.  “But you can't treat somebody who can no longer breathe, and this child was to the point where he could not breathe!  For him, that was life threatening. For other kids, it may not have been.”  Jeffrey's doctor sent him home Wednesday with a diagnosis of “toxin exposure,” and prescriptions for more medicines, injections, and inhalers than the sixth-grader has ever needed before.

Meanwhile, concerned officials at Jeffrey’s school repeat they're doing everything they can to try to find out what that alleged toxin might be. School janitors have disinfected everything in Jeffrey’s classroom and other classrooms several times over, including the students' belongings. That makes the Williamsons feel better, but unless someone can come up with a definite answer to what’s causing the problem, they worry that all the scrubbing won't be enough.  “This town is very fortunate, to only have had one situation that was life threatening,” declares Patti.  “But if it doesn't get solved, what's going to happen? Who else is going to end up in the emergency room?”  Jeffrey shakes his head.  “I don’t want it to happen again.”

As of now, board members say the entire school, grades K-12, will reopen on Monday.  However, the Williamsons say neither Jeffrey nor his fourth-grade sister Megan will be there, unless someone can provide them with a definite answer.

Again, the situation has not been so serious for all the affected children in the Dongola Elementary School. Most have just had the rash.