Bat infestation closes Dedham school

Posted June 17, 2011, at 5:27 p.m.
Last modified June 17, 2011, at 6:30 p.m.

DEDHAM, Maine — Summer vacation arrived early for nearly 200 pupils who attend the local elementary school, thanks to some residents that have been found in the school’s attic.

An unexpected colony of bats, and the smell their guano has created, led officials to abruptly close the school this week.

“We’ve discovered what we think is a pretty big bat colony,” Katherine Lawson, principal of the school, said Friday.

Lawson said that as a precaution, school officials canceled the last five days of school, which had been scheduled to end for the summer next week. She said no bats have been found in any classroom, hallway or other living space in the building, or otherwise have come into direct contact with students or school staff. She said a strong odor of bat droppings has crept into the rearmost classroom in the brick wing that extends away from Route 1A.

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“They are not necessarily a health risk, but they could be,” Lawson said of the resident flying mammals. “You can hear them and smell what they leave behind.”

Lawson said that during a hot day last week, the stench seemed especially strong, which prompted school officials to have it investigated.

No one could come investigate until this past Tuesday, she said, when the guano was found in the attic. The bats themselves could not be seen, she said, but their squeaks could be heard.

That same, day, Superintendent Daniel Lee made the decision to close the building to pupils and to cancel the rest of classes for the year, Lawson said.

According to Dr. Stephen Sears of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the main health threat posed by bats is rabies, which spreads from the saliva of an infected animal through bites or scratches. Other diseases can be found in bat droppings, he said, but they have not been known to occur in Maine and usually take prolonged exposure before they affect humans.

“[Bat guano] tends to be a nuisance, but there is not a lot of disease transmission,” Sears said. “The one thing we’re concerned about is rabies.”

Sears, who had not heard about the situation in Dedham, said any adverse health effects from the guano is unlikely. He said, however, that it should be cleaned up by professionals to ensure there won’t be any.

School officials have posted information about the sudden closure on the school’s website.

Lawson said the pupils will not have to make up the lost days. The graduation ceremony for the eighth grade, she said, will be held as scheduled on Monday but is being moved to the Holden School.

“The state has waived those days,” Lawson said. “I think most of [the pupils] are very happy to be able to start their summer vacations early.”

In the meantime, school staff are cleaning out lockers and collecting items that students left behind on Tuesday, not realizing they would not be going back. An ice cream social will be held outside at the school playground at 5 p.m. Tuesday, June 21, to give students the chance to pick up their things and to say goodbye to staff and to each other for the summer, Lawson said.

The principal said school officials have suspected that bats were in the attic for some time, and previously have tried blocking access points. But it was not until earlier this week that they realized they might have a colony on their hands, she said. Officials are not sure how many bats might be in the building.

The principal said they hope during the summer to rid the attic of bats, which this time of year are rearing young. The school will have a more thorough investigation done to find where the bats are getting in. To allow bats to get out of the building to find food, they plan to install some one-way doors on some entry points so they can get out but can’t get back in, she said. The rest of the holes will be blocked off altogether.

For the time being, school officials are planning to reopen the school as scheduled at the end of August, the principal said.

Lawson said the school is taking the situation seriously, but taking it in stride as well. As she spoke, a photo of her wearing a Batman costume was taped to the door of her office.

The photo, Lawson said, was taken last fall during a book promotion event at the school. A teacher at the school emailed it to her and the rest of the school staff earlier this week, she said, with the message “she knew they were coming!”

“There are situations that are a lot worse out there,” Lawson said. “We’re trying to make the best of it.”

If the school does manage to rid itself of the furry creatures, she hinted, they still might manage to leave a lasting legacy at the school. Currently, the school’s sports teams are known as the Dedham Demons.

“We might have to change it to the Bats,” Lawson said.

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