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No Health Concerns for Students, Faculty & Staff

March 22, 2019 - Forsyth County Public Health Officials have confirmed the outbreak of sudden illness on Wednesday at Petree Elementary was not caused by an infectious disease, a foodborne disease, or an airborne/environmental agent.  The agency says there is “no evidence” that suggests or confirms those as causes.  They have concluded that there is no current threat to the students, faculty, or staff at Petree. Health officials, however, do feel a combination of students drinking undiluted liquid concentrates, eating large amounts of hot and spicy flavored chips, sympathetic vomiting, and food and liquid-sharing are the causes of sudden illness.     

This has been a very difficult puzzle to piece together and we are thankful our city, county, and regional first responders and public health officials went to great lengths to figure out why students suddenly felt sick,” says Dr. Kenneth Simington, Interim Superintendent.  “This is definitely a moment we can all learn from.  We have to help students understand that drinking liquid concentrate against the product directions is not safe.  Eating large amounts of hot and spicy foods alone can upset one’s stomach.  This has definitely heightened our awareness to be on the lookout for those behaviors.” 

On Wednesday, March 20, 2019, after students had returned to class from lunch and recess more than 20 began exhibiting signs of stomach illness.  After consulting with health officials and calling in Emergency Medical Services to monitor the students the administrative team at Petree executed the school’s emergency evacuation plan.

“Due to the high number of students feeling sick, the sudden timing, and the unclear connection as to why certain students weren’t feeling well, it became clear we needed to immediately check the building, the surrounding environment, the food, anything possible to figure out what was causing this,” says Heather Horton, principal at Petree.  “Student safety is my number one priority and I will not take any chances.”

All students sick or feeling ill were seen by EMS onsite, as staff escorted all other students to the gym at Atkins High School, per the district evacuation plan. 

“We are grateful to the staff at Atkins for helping secure their building and provide a separate and safe space for our students and staff while our building was being checked out,” says Horton. “I’m proud of how our staff came together quickly and executed the evacuation plan.”

After Hazmat officials deemed the building safe, late Wednesday a contracted cleaning service sanitized the entire building before students returned on Thursday.

“First and foremost, we are thankful no students were seriously ill,” says Simington.  “While the snacks sold in our cafeteria are pre-packaged by the manufacturer and federally approved for schools, along with our Child Nutrition Department, we will re-evaluate the snack products that are currently sold in our cafeterias.  I hope parents at Petree and across our district will join us in taking this opportunity to remind children they should always follow directions on any food packaging and reiterate that sharing food or drinks with classmates is not a good idea.  This is important because of food allergies, to prevent the spread of germs, and more.”

“I know that Wednesday afternoon may have been frightening for students and parents.  Our school has never seen that many agencies respond at one time, but I am so thankful they all immediately came to our aid,” says Horton. “In the coming days our staff will remind students to always wash their hands before they eat and not share items from other student’s lunches.”    

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools would like to thank all the city, county, regional and state agencies that helped make sure students and the school environment are safe.