Queens Assistant Principal becomes city’s first swine flu fatality
A photo of Assistant Principal Mitchell Wiener in the school's 2008 yearbook.
By Anna Gustafson and Ivan Pereira

Mitchell Wiener, the well-liked assistant principal at IS 238 in Hollis, died Sunday evening after fighting swine flu for five days at Flushing Hospital Medical Center, a hospital official said. The city had closed 10 Queens schools by Monday morning.

Wiener, 55, died at 6:17 p.m. after being hospitalized and treated for swine flu at Flushing since May 13, hospital spokesman Andrew Rubin said. He is the city’s first death linked to swine flu, otherwise known as the H1N1 virus.

His death shocked students, alumni and teachers of the middle school where he had worked for more than 30 years as a math teacher and a principal.

“A lot of people looked at him like a father,” said alum Byron Lopez, 32 who created a makeshift memorial outside the school building, located at 88-15 182nd St., Sunday night.

The school was shut down Friday morning after Wiener and four IS 238 students came down with swine flu according to the city Health Department. Six individuals in the United States, including Wiener, have died after coming down with swine flu.

On Monday, dozens of students came by the school to drop off flowers, candles and messages to their beloved instructor. Wiener began teaching at IS 238 in 1978 as a substitute teacher and later promoted was hired to teach math to sixth-, seventh- and eighth- graders.

He had served as a dean and administrator since the ‘80s, according to former students, and was promoted to assistant principal two years ago.

Lopez, who kept in contact with Wiener long after he graduated, said there would be a candlelight vigil Monday night at the school.

“The man was devoted to his job. He was a mentor to a lot of students,” he said.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein issued a statement saying they mourned the loss of the popular administrator.

“He was a well-liked and devoted educator, and his death is a loss for our schools and our city,” Bloomberg said in the statement. “I ask all New Yorkers to keep his wife Bonnie and the rest of his family in their thoughts and prayers.”

Bonnie Wiener, however, was not content with the mayor’s condolences. Mrs. Wiener, who teaches English at IS 238, had criticized Bloomberg for what she said was a slow response to shut down schools with large numbers of sick students.

“The Department of Health and Department of Education lulled us into a false sense of security,” Bonnie Wiener told The New York Post Saturday. “If [principal Joseph] Gates shut down the school when he wanted to, if he were allowed to, my husband wouldn’t be as ill as he is now.”

An unnamed IS 238 teacher told The Post that Mitchell and Gates had asked to close the school a week before Bloomberg shuttered it on Friday.

City Comptroller Bill Thompson and City Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside), both mayoral candidates, slammed Bloomberg at a legislative forum Sunday for the way he has handled the swine flu situation.

“Now we know it didn’t stop. We should’ve done more,” Avella said.

“They went from this is a crisis to don’t worry to uh-oh, this is a crisis again,” Thompson said.

Bloomberg was expected to address the criticism that he did not close schools quickly enough at a Monday press conference.

The city announced the closings of five schools Sunday, three schools Saturday, and three schools Friday due to concerns about swine flu.

The schools closed Sunday include IS 158 in Bayside, Our Lady of Lourdes in Queens Village, and IS 25, World Journalism Preparatory School and PS 233, all three of which are in Flushing.

The schools closed Saturday are Nathanial Hawthorne School in Bayside, PS 107 in Flushing, and IS 318 in Brooklyn.

In addition to the Hollis middle school, the mayor said Friday that the city closed PS 16 in Corona, where 29 students were reported to have had flu-like symptoms last Thursday, and IS 5 in Elmhurst, where 241 students were reported absent last Thursday, according to Bloomberg.

Three weeks ago, St. Francis Prep High School was closed for more than a week after more than 70 students and teachers were infected with the H1N1 virus and dozens more came down with flu-like symptoms. Nearby Fresh Meadows PS 177 was also closed for a week after some of the students who were associated with Prep were infected.

None of the students at Prep or PS 177 died from the disease and all went on to make a full recovery. Some Prep seniors had taken a trip to Mexico, where the flu strain was believed to have originated, a week before the outbreak.

IS 238 sixth-grader Nadia Torres said she cried when she heard that Mitchell had died at Flushing Hospital. The 11-year-old reminisced how he would play music over the PA system and make her laugh with his corny jokes.

“It was sad because he was well-known by everybody and he made the school come alive,” she said after she and her mother laid a bouquet at the memorial outside the shuttered school.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson and Ivan Pereira by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300.

swine flu, mitchell wiener, hollis, h1n1

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