When Stacy Blevins first heard about Fairfax County's proposed Shelter-in-Place, she thought, "If my six-year-old knew that there was a chance he'd be trapped at school and couldn't see me, he'd never go to school again."
Blevins teaches exercise classes at the Women's Fitness Center in Belle View, and said that her son, Luke, had a hard time getting adjusted to school. She was concerned that if he knew there was a chance that he would have to wait to see his mother after a crisis that he would be very upset.
She also worries about her 12-year-old daughter, Rachel, whose classroom is one of a dozen trailers. "They'd have to find space for all those kids inside the school," she said.
After all the analysis, however, Fairfax County Public School safety officials still think that keeping the children in school during a possible chemical release is the only way to keep them safe.
A letter sent home with schoolchildren last month said: "If a dangerous chemical was released in the community and posed a threat to students during the school day, we would be directed, most likely by public health or safety officials, to bring all students and staff members indoors; including those in trailers; to shut down all heating, ventilation and air-conditioned systems; and to close and secure all doors and windows. The neutral atmospheric pressure created by these actions would create a barrier and help keep chemical agents from leaking into the building.
"This approach has proven to be safe, much safer than evacuating students into a contaminated outdoor environment. In fact, no person protected by a shelter-in-place procedure has died as a result of any of the 35 major chemical accidents in this country over the last 20 years."
BARBARA HUBBARD, principal at Stratford Landing Elementary School, thinks it makes sense as well.
"I think it's something we can manage, and I know as it proceeds that we will get updates from officials," she said.
To try to alleviate some of the concerns of her staff and parents, she set up a meeting last month with James McLain, Fairfax County Public Schools Coordinator for Security.
"When I called the FCPS Office of Security and Risk Management and spoke with James McLain, I knew I had the right number. All that he wanted to know was when was a good time to come out and speak to us and answer our questions," said Hubbard.
Hubbard set up an evening meeting and invited the community schools, Fort Hunt, Waynewood and Riverside.
Hubbard said that McLain spoke in clear and simple language. "He did not leave until he was sure that all questions had been answered. There were moments of levity and anxiety was taken down a notch, but McLain acknowledged that every question was a good one and he responded with respect."
McLain said, "It is not the school's intention to keep children from their parents. These are your children and they need to be with you. We are endeavoring to keep children safe for parents until the parents can pick them up. Remember, school may be the safest place for them."
WHAT PROBABLY PUTS it most into perspective is McLain's comment, "If the air is safe for you to breathe, we won't have to use Shelter-in-Place. This is a temporary solution to a temporary problem."
McLain said that they're not talking about a long-term situation. He anticipates that most situations will last no longer than one to two hours; four to six hours in a very extreme instance. Thus, he sees no need for stockpiling food or clothing. A change of clothes would be required only if somebody was contaminated and showed signs of exposure. In that case, McLain said that they would use gym clothes or lost and found items to replace the person's outer clothing.
McLain said that 90 percent of contamination is controlled by removing a person's outer clothing; the other 10 percent can be taken care of by showering.
"We've been doing this for years," said McLain, citing the most recent situation that happened two years ago in Baltimore. There was a chemical release and the managers sheltered the residents of a high-rise assisted living building in place.
McLain said he and Doug O'Neil from Security and Risk Management, have put together this plan and feel very comfortable with it. Many other school systems have used Fairfax County's plan as a model and McLain said that there is even a link to FCPS from the Homeland Security's web site.
McLain said that he has spoken to thousands of parents. Two of the things that parents worry about are the lack of oxygen and not being able to get to their children in a timely manner. McLain said that there is more than enough air in school buildings to sustain everybody for many hours. He also tells parents who are stuck trying to get home from work not to worry.
"We will keep your children safe until you can get to them," he said.