‘Worse than I’ve ever seen’: Kids across DC region are getting sick at the same time

Welcome to the School Zone, WTOP’s weekly feature about the latest topics and trends in education across the D.C. region.

Why are DC-area kids getting so sick, and what does it mean for parents and teachers?

What it is: Late last month, a parent posted in a Facebook group for Prince William County, Virginia, families, explaining their child had been sick with “flu-like, wheezing symptoms and high fevers” during the previous week.

The parent asked whether other families in the Dale City/Woodbridge area had experienced anything similar.

The post received 75 comments, with responses like “I’ve been coughing for six weeks” or “RSV both my kids just had it and myself it was awful.”

A few months into the 2022-23 school year, one thing is clear: Students, teachers and by extension parents are getting sick with respiratory viruses that hadn’t been circulating as widely because of the pandemic precautions in place.

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What it means: Since September, D.C.-area doctors have seen a spike in respiratory illnesses, according to Dr. Jason Custer, a pediatrician at the University of Maryland School of Medicine who directs the pediatric intensive care unit at the University of Maryland Children’s Hospital.

In September, Custer told me, doctors saw an increase in the spread of rhino enterovirus. Then, there was a spike in respiratory syncytial virus, which Custer said has the potential to make kids under 2 years old very sick. Now, on top of that, there’s a spike in flu cases. A positive, he said, is “we’ve seen very little COVID.”

Still, children’s hospitals across the country are reaching capacity, and health officials are urging parents to consult pediatricians before heading to the emergency room.

Children’s National in D.C., for one, told families to expect long wait times for non-urgent issues. Custer told me the spike has come in the last month and a half, and that the region’s children’s hospitals are regularly collaborating.

The disruption also means kids are missing school, teachers are missing class and in some cases, parents are taking time off work.

Regional snapshot: Kim Mesterhazy, a math specialist in Prince William County whose kids attend classes in Stafford County, said her two sons recently had cold symptoms. And, she said her daughter is one of nearly 1,000 Stafford High School students who were out with what was thought to be some strain of the flu.

For her kids, if they’re absent, they’re able to check an online system to see what schoolwork they missed. But at her Prince William County school, things are much worse, she told me.

The school’s class sizes average between 20 to 25 students, and recently, there have only been 12 to 14 students in each class. Mesterhazy was in a first-grade classroom this week, because a teacher has been out with a 100-plus degree fever. One day this week, there were 11 of 20 students in class.

And the students who were in class, she said, were coughing and sneezing. More kids have been wearing masks now, than at the start of the school year.

“It’s a constant cough throughout the day,” Mesterhazy said.

Alexis Hackett, another Northern Virginia parent, has observed much of the same. It started early in the year, with a spike in cases of Hand, Foot and Mouth disease.

Her sixth grader has remained healthy, which Hackett said is likely because she wears a mask to school. One of her friends, who attends a different school, “did bring the flu home,” she said.

“People now will send their kids sick to school again, because there’s no virtual schooling,” Hackett told me.

In D.C., Alexandra Simbana’s 3-year-old twins have been sick for three weeks. They have a hacking cough and aren’t getting much sleep. It hasn’t proved to be RSV, COVID-19 or the flu, she said, but it’s “taking my whole family down.”

Early this week, she took the kids to a walk-in clinic. She arrived minutes after it opened and said she was the 30th person in line.

“This round of illness is unrelenting,” Simbana said.

Becky Reina’s kids in D.C., meanwhile, have had a cold for the last week and a half. A letter from her students’ elementary school said that since Oct. 27, at least 12 people have reported “being ill with symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, headache and sore throat.” None of those 12 reported a positive COVID-19 test, the letter said, “but we are reaching out to remind families that it is cold and flu season.”

The school also reported four recent COVID-19 cases, prompting school leaders to send students home with tests “out of an abundance of caution.”

Talking points: Mesterhazy, the Virginia parent, said, “For colleagues and things like that, it’s people having to take off of work because their child is sick or they are sick, and just trying to work out crazy schedules. The sitter doesn’t want to be around because your child has cold-like symptoms and there’s no one to watch.”

Custer, the pediatrician, said, “Anecdotally, and I think early reports are showing that yes, because these viruses didn’t circulate widely in 2020 and 2021 … all kids less than 2 or 3 have never seen these viruses.”

By the numbers
Some data that caught my eye this week.

Security grants: Several elementary schools in Fairfax County, Virginia, are receiving $250,000 grants from the state to be used for school security equipment. The Virginia Department of Education announced the grants in a news release Thursday.

It is distributing $12 million to 431 schools across 90 school divisions.

“The systems and equipment purchased through these grants will help school divisions control access to school buildings, respond quickly to emergencies and maintain orderly learning environments for students,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow said in a statement.

The Fairfax County schools include: Beech Tree Elementary, Cameron Elementary, Groveton Elementary, Sleepy Hollow Elementary and Woodley Hills Elementary.

What Scott’s Reading

  • Teen pleads guilty to attempted murder in Magruder High shooting [WTOP]
  • Survey of Virginia students finds alarming rates of anxiety, suicidal thoughts [WTOP]
  • Va. attorney general who disagreed over role of SROs tours Alexandria High School [WTOP]
  • Board of Education race updates: Yang wins, Rivera-Oven and Silvestre likely to secure seats [Bethesda Beat]
  • After a chaotic lockdown, Montgomery schools revisit safety training [Washington Post]
  • Native American man works in public schools to raise cultural awareness [NBC Washington]

Field Trip 

Here’s a fun thought ahead of the weekend.

Doppelgänger party: It’s shaping up to be a weekend of likely losing football, but a doppelgänger party on Saturday may be the saving grace. I’m going as Vince Vaughn in “Wedding Crashers.”

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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