School in the Time of Zika

by | August 19, 2016 AT 12:33 PM

By Kyra Gurney

Parents and children crowded into the cafeteria at Eneida M. Hartner Elementary School on Thursday afternoon to get new school uniforms -- ones with long pants and long-sleeved shirts intended to protect against the spread of Zika.

Some mothers waited anxiously, others calmly, for school district vouchers they could exchange for two pairs of khaki pants and two long-sleeved white shirts at one of the uniform vendors stationed outside the building. At one end of the cafeteria, Florida Department of Health officials handed out insect repellent and information on how to prevent mosquito bites.

Chiquita Myers, whose 10-year-old son Lavaris will be entering fifth grade at Eneida Hartner on Monday, said she was concerned about Zika before she received a text message from the district earlier in the day saying that her son could get free protective gear at the school.

"He's really prepared. He has his mosquito repellent and his long sleeves. He has his jackets," she said.

But outside the cafeteria, in a line to exchange the vouchers for uniforms, Rosa Contrera said she was still worried about the virus. Contrera and her five children recently moved to Florida from Rhode Island and were not expecting to face the threat of a tropical disease in addition to the usual jitters of starting classes at a new school.

Contrera has been monitoring her children for any signs of a fever, one of the symptoms of Zika. "The other day, I took my kids to the park and my son was feeling a little warm," Contrera said. "Oh my gosh, I couldn't sleep that night. It's scary."

School board member Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, who represents schools inside the Zika transmission zone, said many parents in her district are anxious about sending their kids back to school in the affected area.

"They are a little bit panicky, but they shouldn't be, because we are here to protect them," she said.

Bendross-Mindingall is encouraging parents to practice "tough love" and to make sure their children don't leave the house without protective clothing, even if they protest because of the heat.

Over 200 Miami-Dade families with children attending school in the Wynwood area received long-sleeved shirts and pants. The district also handed out uniforms at Phillis Wheatley Elementary and will be distributing more clothing on Friday at Jose de Diego Middle School between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m.

The uniforms are available to children attending any of the six public schools within or immediately outside the affected area, along with students at nearby Frederick Douglass Elementary School.

Mercedes Cabrera, the mother of two children who will go back to school in the Zika threat zone, said she is "not really" worried that they will get the virus. She plans to dress her daughter, who will be starting first grade at Eneida Hartner, in leggings and make sure that her son, soon to be a seventh-grader at Jose de Diego, wears long-sleeved shirts to class.

Cabrera is more concerned about her unborn child. She is eight months' pregnant and has been trying to stay inside as much as possible during the final month of her pregnancy. Cabrera took a urine test for Zika several weeks ago, around the time the first locally spread cases of the virus were reported in Miami.

The relief when the test results came back negative, Cabrera said, was "like I didn't get cancer."

(c)2016 Miami Herald