Itch stymies officials, kids return to class at PS 161

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Anxiety began to subside at PS 161 this week even as investigators from the city Department of Health were still trying to find out why nearly 60 students and their teachers came down with a mysterious rash Feb. 5.

Health officials removed the book that appeared to have set off the spate of itchiness for testing. But as of presstime Tuesday they had not determined what caused the outbreak that landed 53 students, three teachers and four EMS workers in Jamaica Hospital, said Health Department Spokesman Andrew Tucker.

“Do we know what caused it? No,” said District 28 spokesman Ron Levine. “Things are normal at the school. Attendance is normal at the school. As far as we’re concerned, it’s a normal school day at PS 161 Q.”

Attendance was down at the Richmond Hill school the day after the outbreak and about 15 students who had been transported to the hospital Tuesday were sent home early Feb. 6 because they complained of lingering itchiness, Levine said.

Doctors called the rash a non-specific dermatological condition, and had sent the itching children home with a supply of Benadryl the day before.

Tejinder Singh was one fifth-grader who left school early Feb. 6. “The teacher made two classrooms,” he said as he left the school with his mother. “One is the itching classroom and the other is the children that didn’t itch.”

By Monday, Levine said attendance levels had returned to normal, nearly a week after fire engines, HazMat trucks, Health Department officials and a throng of reporters had descended on the 124th Street school.

Also on Monday, 800 students in Bucks County, Pa. returned to school after doctors determined that a rash that broke out among 127 students in six county schools last week was harmless.

Pennsylvania health officials closed down school as officials conducted environmental tests that ruled out biological causes such as mold, mites and bacteria.

“There is no confirmation as to what was causing (the rashes),” said Pennsylvania Department of Health spokesman Richard McGarvey. “(It) seemed like it was environmental in nature though you don’t rule anything out until you have an answer.”

McGarvey said Pennsylvania officials were in constant communication with officials working on the PS 161 case, but the only similarity between the two cases is that both have left officials wondering what set off the itchiness.

“At this point the superintendent and health officials do not believe there is any connection,” said Levine. “We’re talking apples and oranges.”

A similar outbreak affected hundreds of students and teachers at a Virginia middle school last November. A cause was never determined, although officials said the rash was most likely caused by a virus.

PS 161 Parent Association President Daisy Diaz was confident the building was safe and sent her daughter to school the day after what has come to be called “the itch,” surfaced.

“The air was tested, they washed down the entire building with bleach and ammonia and air filters were changed” she said. “If it was airborne, everybody would have gotten it yesterday.”

While parents said they would feel more comfortable knowing the cause of “the itch,” most agreed with Harry Ramdeo, grandfather of a first-grade boy.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” he said.

Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

Updated 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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