Pittsburg school officials scrambled Wednesday to cope with an apparent outbreak of swine flu that closed one school in the district and raised concerns that students at a second school may have been infected.
On the same day Highlands Elementary was closed after three probable cases of swine flu were identified, nine students at a second city school were referred to county health officials with flu-like symptoms.
Marina Vista Elementary Principal Lynne Plunkett said the ill students from her school are from different classes, and include a couple groups of siblings.
Plunkett said Wednesday the school is taking extra precaution with students and reminding them of basic health skills like washing hands and covering their mouths when coughing.Head custodian Donald Lloyd added crews are doing extra cleaning using a substance called Bacfighter to kill germs in all areas.
Some Marina Vista parents picked up their kids early upon hearing about the symptoms at that school.
Contra Costa County also has tested an ill student from Riverside High School in Pittsburg, but those results were not immediately available.
County health officials decided Tuesday night to close Highlands after 13 children from the same fourth-grade class were either sent home or called in sick with flu-like symptoms.
Student names and contact numbers for the ill Highlands students were provided to the county Tuesday. Officials later found three probable cases of swine flu that may have derived from their classroom. District Superintendent Barbara Wilson said she was told County Health Officer Dr. William Walker the cases were minor.
The county is only testing where there appears to be a cluster of students with symptoms, such as Marina Vista, Wilson said.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the Pittsburg school district had not identified any additional cases of suspected swine flu.
School continued Wednesday at all Pittsburg schools except Highlands. Students are being asked to stay home if they experience flu-like symptoms, and are being advised to contact their medical provider.
Marcello Maxey, an eighth grader at Hillview Junior High, said that "everybody is kind of freaking out about it." Pittsburg High Principal Todd Whitmire said students used the news of the day to wear protective masks and gloves for fun.
"I'm sure some parents insist they bring it to school, but most of it was joking around," he said.
In Antioch, eight students from Belshaw Elementary who reported flu-like symptoms were sent home, and county health officials were informed as a precaution, district spokeswoman Deidra Powell-Williams said. A doctor's clearance will be required before they can return to school, Powell-Williams said.
On Wednesday morning, roughly a dozen parents drove to Highlands Elementary on Harbor Street, where Principal Steve Ahonen individually told them that classes had been canceled.
State schools superintendent Jack O'Connell commended the Pittsburg school district for it handling of the situation during a news conference Wednesday.
"My hat goes off to them for closing the school with little notice," O'Connell said. "This really can be a model for us in terms of protocol."
Pittsburg officials planned to have students who showed up at Highlands on Wednesday use the clubhouse at Buchanan Park across the street. However, that wasn't necessary.
Teachers contacted their students' families Tuesday night to inform them of the decision, Ahonen said. Teachers at Marina Vista will take the same actions if district officials hear the nine cases are also probably swine flu.
Other schools in the district were flooded with calls early Wednesday morning from concerned parents asking whether their schools were safe.
"We've definitely answered a lot of phone calls, and talked to a lot of parents," said Shelley Velasco, principal at Hillview Junior High School. That school is blocks from Highlands, and many siblings attend both schools.
She said she had not heard whether any of the 13 kids who had flu-like symptoms from Highlands were related to her students. Ahonen said at least one of the 13 has an older sibling at the junior high.
Some parents at nearby Foothill Elementary were unaware that Highlands had been closed, and were worried upon hearing the news.
"It's scary," Oralia Macias said. "That school is so close. It's still in Pittsburg. I'm sure a lot of the kids know and play with each other."
As of Wednesday afternoon, the district had no plans to close other schools, Superintendent Wilson said, adding that decision would be determined by the county health department. A couple of the students in the fourth-grade class at Highlands take the bus to school, Ahonen said.
"You think of this happening elsewhere in the county and around the world, but not in Pittsburg," said Ahonen, calling it a the first time for anything like this in his 29 years at the district.
Staff writer Hilary Costa contributed to this story. Reach Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164 or email@example.com.