Sickout planned over bats at Bay Elementary
Eleven weeks after a student first noticed a bat hanging upside-down from the ceiling of Bay Elementary's gym, bats have been spotted in the library, classrooms, bathrooms, hallways, even in the cafeteria. The smell of bat guano seeps from a cinderblock wall in the gym and the cafeteria, and last week, a bat swooped over the heads of children eating lunch.
The school district has hired a professional bat catcher and dispatched personnel to monitor school hallways and bathrooms for bats, but some parents are not resting easy. Worried about the 1 in 100 bats that carries rabies, a handful of parents are keeping their kids home while the battle with the bats drags on. Some say the school should be shut down altogether.
"Until they've gone a day without seeing one bat in the school, we need to shut it down because 1 in 100 is enough to make a kid sick. Or kill a kid," said Angela Dautreuil, the parent of a second-grader who's home this week. "I don't think the bats are going after us. Of course I don't. I just think they're flying around blindly and can run into us. It just takes a scratch."
On Tuesday 44 students were absent, according to Elaina Polsen, spokeswoman for the Clear Creek Independent School District. That's slightly more than usual but not significantly so, she said.
But Debbie Adams, the mother of a fifth grader, said she's calling, texting, e-mailing and using Facebook to contact parents and urge them to keep their children home Wednesday.
We are staging a sickout," she said. "We need to unite as parents to let the district know this situation is unacceptable."
"Our children are walking down the hallways where bats are flying overhead. They're dropping feces as they fly. Our children are touching bookshelves and books in the library, are drinking out of the water fountains . . . As long as the bats are in the building where my child is walking, I don't feel that my child is safe."
Joe Auten has a different point of view. The father of a first-grader and a second-grader who thought the bat in the lunchroom was cool, he says it would be very difficult for either him or his wife to stay home with the kids because they both work. He says his kids' safety is paramount, but rabies is extremely rare and he trusts Principal Erin Tite.
"She's not going to let the kids come to school if it's not safe," he says. "We live in a rural environment. We have deer asleep in my neighbor's yard. We have raccoons eating out of the cat-food bowl. We've trained our kids to be careful."
Attaining a bat-free school, moreover, is something that could take another three weeks or more.
Here's why. School officials say the law prohibits killing bats, so the strategy is to chase them off and prevent them from getting back inside.
[Update: Texas Game Warden Quint Balkcom says
Texas wildlife laws actually allows people to hunt -- defined as attempts "to capture, trap, take or kill" -- bats if they're in occupied buildings. But Gary Johnson, an animal-disease specialist with the Texas Department of Health, says there's no chemical that's approved to kill bats. And using guns would present obvious problems.
Johnson said the Texas Department of Health has been in contact with the school district, and he believes the school's safe.
"I believe the staff knows what they're doing and they're doing what they can," Johnson said.]
So far 40 to 50 bats have been caught and released from Bay Elementary in addition to the bats that have left on their own in search of food and water. Any that remain may be hibernating another three weeks until it warms up again and they get hungry, Polsen said.
"We've done everything we can do at this point," she said. "There's no food or water for the bats. They're going to want to get out."
The campaign to drive out the bats didn't begin sooner because school officials didn't realize that the first bats spotted Dec. 7 were anything more than strays who'd wandered in through an open door, Polsen said. But she can rattle off a list of what's been done in the last week to let the bats know just how inhospitable humans protecting their young can be.
The gaps where the bats have been getting into the school -- mostly in the flashing between the brick and the roof that runs along the school bus lane -- have been sealed off. The escape hatches left so the bats can get out are covered in a black mesh to prevent the bats from getting back inside.
The gym and the cafeteria have been closed off because the bats were getting into the main part of the school through gaps in the gym and cafeteria's retractable wall. Last week sack lunches were handed out in classrooms. This week a nearby school is cooking lunches and delivering them to Bay Elementary's older gym, which is set apart from the rest of the school.
Over the weekend, a disinfectant called Sporicidin was sprayed into the air handlers that pump air into every room in the school. Commonly used as a cleaning solution at hospitals, Sporicidin is intended to kill any germs brought in by the bats but also give the bats a whiff of something they'd like to get away from. There's a 6-month residual effect, so the school won't be spraying again anytime soon and the bats missing out on it by hibernating will not enjoy awakening to it.
Polsen said the steps already taken are already having an effect.
"We've seen a decrease in bat activity, and we think our methods are working," she said.
But even this week bats have been spotted in parts of the school where kids are, and Adams said she was in one of the media rooms Monday afternoon after school when a bat swooped down within 3 feet of her. Ten boys from the school's robotics team had left the room just five minutes earlier, she said.
"If one of those little boys had thrown their hands up because they got scared, can you imagine?" Adams said.
Polsen said she saw a bat in the library Monday herself and promised things won't get back to normal until there haven't been any bat sightings for "a long time." The gym and cafeteria will remain closed until then, and the school district is taking a lenient approach to absences discussed by parents with the principal. Absences will be reported to the state as required, but absences won't be counted against students for awards and other purposes.
Although the State Department of Health hasn't tested any of Bay Elementary's bats for rabies since no one's been in physical contact with any at the school, Polsen said she would have no qualms herself about sending a child to the school under the circumstances.
"Bats are part of nature, and they're here," she said. "We feel really good about our precautions."
Learn more: See video from the school's bat catcher, answers to frequently asked questions and a letter to parents of Bay Elementary students.
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