PS 69 in Jackson Heights, Queens has had bed bugs in fifteen classrooms since September 2012, but the New York City Department of Education claims it isn’t infested. As I will explain in a moment, it all hinges on how the DOE defines the term “infested.”
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In a story on bed bugs at PS 69, DNAInfo.com cites Department of Education official Marge Feinberg with her usual suggestion that bed bugs haven’t infested the school, but are simply repeatedly brought in, over and over, individually:
Education Department spokeswoman Marge Feinberg said though the specimens have been found at the school, there has been no infestation.
“Every time we find a single bed bug, we are required to report it,” Feinberg said in an email. “Schools are not hospitable environments for bed bugs and are brought in from the outside, usually in a bag or on clothing.”
The rooms were cleaned and parents were notified, Feinberg said.
“Not hospitable environments?” Why not? People sit for periods of 30 minutes and longer. There are cracks and crevices, cluttered desks, and lockers or cloakrooms in which to hide. Seems like a pretty good place to hang out and feed, once you find yourself there.
It turns out, per the Bed Bug Information Kit for Schools (download in Word here) the NYCDOE uses the following definition of “infested”:
According to the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, an infestation is identified by bed bug reproduction in a given area. During the inspection, the DOE Pest Management Professional will look for bed bugs in various life stages (egg, nymph, adult). A school is infested only if there are signs of bedbug reproduction. A confirmed bed bug does not mean that the school is infested. (Bed Bug Information Kit, Page 3)
When you define “infestation” as “we saw visible signs of reproduction,” then — depending on the nature and length of inspections carried out — you can count a lot fewer “infestations.”
During the 2010-11 year, there were 3,590 confirmed reports of bedbugs in the [NYC public] school system’s 1,200 buildings, which are used by a little over a million students daily. How many of these cases resulted in the establishment of a full-blown colony on school grounds? Only once did an infestation bloom—seven bedbugs were discovered making whoopee in the closet of a Queens high school last December. Gotham’s vaunted serum-suckers thus gained a foothold in only 0.03 percent of their known school forays. Even this low figure may be an overestimate. No doubt other trespassers went undetected…
Correction: only once were signs of reproduction detected.
Consider that it’s hard to find bed bugs without a careful, laborious inspection. In cases where a bed bug discovery prompts treatment, harborages may not always be aggressively sought out and found.
Note also that while bed bug experts typically tell the public not to clean before an inspection, lest signs of bed bugs are disturbed before harborages can be identified, the DOE’s Bed Bug Information Kit (page 5) directs schools to prepare for inspection by vacuuming carpets and floors and cleaning closets, and allows for the discarding of bagged items. In other words, since signs may potentially be cleaned away or tossed out before inspectors arrive, there may be some signs of bed bug infestation inspectors never get to see.
The absence of detected signs of bed bug reproduction have allowed Feinberg to stress this idea — that bed bugs are brought in on students’ clothing or belongings and don’t infest schools– for six years. Here’s a similar example from February 2007, and another from July 2007.
Feinberg has repeatedly focused on bed bugs being brought in, but seems to omit reference to the possibility that they might hitchhike out as well.
Of course, students (and, we should stress, also: teachers, staff, delivery people, visitors) bring bed bugs in, but bed bugs don’t just die because they’re brought in to school. They can harbor there, breed, feed on people, and go home with them another day. And good luck to you if you think that you’ve spotted every single bed bug and egg which may be present.
Despite Feinberg’s comments cited in the DNAInfo.com article about parents being notified, one PS 69 parent who had had bed bugs, told DNAInfo the school had not sent out any notices about the bed bugs found at school:
… [Shirley] Encarnacion, who said she now sends her kids to school with plastic bags to carry their personal belongings, said she didn’t receive any notification until after hearing reports from other parents and calling the administration herself.
“I sent an email to the administration letting them now my concerns and letting them know I find it alarming there hasn’t been any notices,” she said. “I guess people are embarrassed by it.”
Again, the problem comes down to the definition of “infestation”. The NYCDOE Bed Bug Information Kit, again, describes the policy on notifying parents:
If the Pest Management Professional observes an infestation in the school, the Pest Management Unit will notify the school principal and schedule treatment, as well as additional inspections of rooms adjacent to the room with the infestation. Parents/guardians of students in the entire building must be notified if there is an infestation. (Effective July 1, 2011, this will also be New York State Law.) The Pest Management Unit will provide the principal with notification materials to send to parents and staff. (Page 3)
So the DOE policy is that unless the PMP observes signs of bed bug reproduction — by which, presumably, they mean eggs or bed bugs caught in the process of actually “doin’ the nasty” — parents do not need to be notified. And that’s the law.
To go back to the 2010-2011 statistics, that’s 3590 times individual bed bugs were found in schools that year, and one instance (representing 7 of the 3590 actual bed bugs) in which parents, by law, had to be notified of their presence at school.
We first referenced a story from the Queens Gazette about bed bugs in Queens schools including PS 69 six years ago, when these policies were first being formulated.
The NYC DOE bed bug policy is that extremely busy teachers must catch or photograph a bed bug and send it to the DOE for identification before anything is done (which we’ve heard from teachers is not a good situation).
What if hotels took a similar approach? Would consumers be happy if nothing was done until a bed bug was spotted by the guest in the light of day? Remember that schoolchildren and their parents are also consumers — and the parents, at least, are taxpayers.
Does the DOE have bed bug monitoring systems in place in classrooms? These can be inexpensive and could contribute to control measures as well as identifying problems quickly and more reliably than waiting for bed bugs to be spotted one by one by teachers and students.
While I think NYC DOE needs to do more proactively and reactively to deal with bed bugs, I would not recommend the tactics taken in some other cities, where students with bed bugs at home have been banned from school, or schools have been shut down for days based on one bed bug sighting.
And consider the case of Portsmouth Virginia, where last week, (according to WAVY news,) I.C. Norcom High School teachers came to class in “protective clothing” (whatever that means — Tyvek suits?) In any case, it is bound to be ineffective. And students were asked to tote their belongings around school in plastic bags, which in at least one case, a reporter noted, resulted in a torn bag by the end of the day. More on Portsmouth’s story in the video below and on WAVY.com.
Getting back to New York City — it’s pretty obvious to me that the NYCDOE needs to accept that bed bugs can harbor in schools, and can be taken home by those who didn’t bring them in, that some kind of ongoing detection and monitoring system should be in place, and that parents should be warned when bed bugs are detected in the classroom (and they should be directed to educational resources) — even if signs of reproduction are not detected.
Do you agree? What else can be done to deal with this in a more proactive manner, without going overboard?
Given that bed bugs will be brought in, what can be done to detect them and eliminate them, and to prevent their spread?
I know you have some ideas and comments. Please share them!
Hit the comments below!