City unengaged when dealing with student's death, Newark schools say

By Naomi Nix | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on March 12, 2015

District officials answered parent questions after a 6-year-old student died in Newark last week.

 

NEWARK — Days after city schools announced the death of a 6-year-old student, the district is pointing fingers at city officials who it says have not been communicative or cooperative enough in the wake of the child's death.

"It is difficult to establish a good working relationship when the other party is uninterested in engaging on any level," Newark school's spokeswoman Brittany Chord Parmley said of the district's attempts to work with the city after learning of the student's death, which officials say may have been caused by bacterial or viral meningitis.

"The district remains hopeful that the city will partner with us moving forward, so that we can work together to provide the best care for families and students in Newark."

The statement follows more than a week of multiple communication breakdowns between the school district and the city health department as they responded to the discovery of what is a potentially contagious and deadly disease, interviews and email records obtained by NJ Advance Media show.

Hanaa Hamdi, Newark's Director of Health and Human Services, argued Thursday night that it is the district who has not made itself available to the city.

So far, there have been no other reported cases of meningitis in the city. But, experts say the communication issues between the district and the city health department in the face of a potential health crisis could have led to more disastrous and widespread negative outcomes.

"We're lucky it was a near miss," said Steffie Wollhandler, a physician and professor of public health at CUNY's Hunter College.

"Rather than pointing fingers they need to figure out how they should change the system so this never happens again."

Communication Breakdown

The city's health department said it was notified on March 4 that the student was admitted to a hospital and could have meningitis, according to Hamdi. The student died on March 5.

City officials said the health department attempted to reach out to the school district on March 4 and 5 — a snow day — but did not reach anyone, said Hamdi. The school district said they had no records of attempted communication.

In an email to city health department officials, the district's chief talent officer Vanessa Rodriguez complained that the city did not tell the district that there could be a case of meningitis until the March 6.

"I don't understand the breakdown of communication between the Newark Health Department and the school district," Rodriguez wrote. She called the move "unacceptable," and one that "puts our community at potential risk."

Wollhandler said it's essential to share information with relevant parties.

"When a health department knows about a highly communicable disease....you need to give the information to anyone who might have been exposed. You need to make sure someone knows immediately," she said.

School Attendance

In the midst of disputing the exact timeline of events before and after the child's death, controversy has also developed around misinformation about the child's whereabouts in the days leading up to her death.

Initially, school officials told parents that the child had been out of school for 10 days before she died. It later rescinded the statement, telling residents she was, in fact, in school during the disease's potential incubation period, when it is most contagious.

"The attendance information was initially read incorrectly (last) Friday by staff, but this was corrected on Monday morning," Chord Parmley said in a statement Wednesday.

School and city officials have disputed exactly when the district let the city know about the mistake. The district says it shared the specific attendance dates with the city on Monday, but the city says it received them on Tuesday.

Having that information sooner may have changed the city health department's response to the news, and its recommendations to parents of children who may have had contact with the late child, Hamdi has maintained.

"Because we did not have that information that she was there (three days that the district initially said she wasn't), the state and local departments of health did not recommend any action," initially, she said Wednesday.

After finding out about the new attendance records, Hamdi said the city changed its recommendation, telling parents who may have had close contact to the student to see a doctor.

On Thursday, the city brought a mobile health clinic to the school to offer antibiotics.

Questions

East Ward Councilman Augusto Amador, who said his office has raised $5,000 to help the family of the late child, said he is concerned about the lack of communication between the school system and the city.

Amador also said he was worried that the district did not sanitize the whole school in light of the child's passing. School officials said Sunday night they had the (child's) classroom cleaned as a precautionary measure.

"There should have been more communication and better communication between the two...so we don't have all these questions proposed by parents," Amador said.

Wednesday, state officials said new cases arising from the school exposure would likely have been seen by Monday.

"Based on the last date of school attendance of Feb. 27 for the child, the last date where a secondary case related to potential school exposure would have been March 9," state health department spokeswoman Donna Leusner said today in a statement.

"It is unlikely that there will be any new cases associated with the death of the first grader in Newark," she said.

Gwen Fennelly, chairman of the department of pediatrics at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, said the risk of first grader spreading bacterial meningitis in a classroom is low. It must be transmitted through direct exposure to secretion, and therefore the risk is higher among family members of the infected.

"These are not kids that are not drooling on one another," he said.

While the disease has yet to surface in other students, Wollhandler said the city health department and the school district should establish a protocol for communication when there is a potential public health crisis.

"Nothing terrible happened. But it was a near miss. Something terrible could have happened. When you have a near miss (it) can give you ideas about things that could change," she said.

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