February 13, 2019

John Witherspoon MS Combats Flu Outbreak

By Donald Gilpin

With over 20 percent of its students absent last Thursday and Friday and almost as many on Monday, John Witherspoon Middle School (JWMS) has been hit especially hard by what the New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH) is reporting as widespread influenza (flu) or “influenza-like illnesses” in all regions of the state.

Princeton Public Schools Superintendent Steve Cochrane said that PPS has implemented “a disinfection protocol” at JWMS that began last Friday and will continue throughout this week.

“Our number of students reported absent is down today at JW Middle School,” Cochrane stated in an email Monday, “and although the percentage is still close to 20 percent, we are moving in a positive direction.” He urged parents to make sure that children who had the flu were fever-free for at least 24 hours before sending them back to school. So far, other Princeton schools have not reported high rates of illness or absenteeism.

In accordance with NJDOH guidelines, the PPS has been in contact with Municipal Health Officer Jeff Grosser, “and at his direction the district has implemented a comprehensive disinfection protocol at JW,” Cochrane said.

In a message sent to JWMS students, staff, and families on Friday, Cochrane stated, “Last night and again this morning, our custodial staff used hospital-grade disinfectant to wipe down common surfaces such as handrails, door knobs, bathroom fixtures, and keyboards, which are frequently touched. To thoroughly combat the spread of infection, we will continue to implement our disinfection procedures.”

Grosser reported that he was notified about the absences by school officials last week.  “Our public health nurses were working alongside school officials and nurses on Friday to communicate the situation to parents and other Princeton schools in an attempt to slow the outbreak,” Grosser stated in an email Monday.

“Right now we believe it was some type of upper respiratory illness based upon the symptoms the students were experiencing,” he added. “Our message to the public is to make sure parents keep children home from school if they are sick or not feeling well and to make sure proper hand hygiene is practiced.” He urged parents to contact their school nurse or the Princeton Health Department if they have questions.

In response to inquiries and parents’ concerns about air quality and mold in the schools, Cochrane noted that remediation began in the fall and that monitoring and prevention efforts are ongoing.

“The most recent reports from our consultant, AHERA Consultants Inc., have not shown levels of serious concern with regard to mold in our buildings, and the results of air quality testing remain at appropriate levels,” Cochrane said. “Out of an abundance of caution, our staff have continued to work with our consultants to inspect, test, and clean any identified areas suspected of mold. To date, most of the consultant’s recommendations have centered around prevention efforts.” 

He added, “Our maintenance team has been in close contact with staff members and our consultants since remediation efforts began in the fall to ensure that any questions are immediately addressed.”