Published Online: April 30, 2009

Swine Flu Fears Lead to More Texas School Closings

Two more school systems on Wednesday shuttered all of their campuses after reports of probable cases of swine flu, causing more than 130,000 students statewide to miss class because of concerns about the virus.

Fort Worth School District Superintendent Melody Johnson announced Wednesday night that the district — which has about 80,000 students — would close its 140 schools through at least May 8. Only essential personnel at central headquartes will work during that time, she said.

There are 11 probable swine flu cases in the county that includes Fort Worth, according to Tarrant County Public Health officials. One case is confirmed at a Fort Worth middle school, Dr. Sandra Parker, the agency's medical director, said at a news conference.

Earlier Wednesday, Cleburne school district officials canceled classes the rest of the week for the nearly 7,000 students after four probable cases were reported, Superintendent Ronny Beard said. Workers have started disinfecting all buildings, buses, playground equipment and everything else that students touch, he said.

The four students ages 15 to 17 attend Cleburne's lone high school, Beard said. But officials decided to close all 11 schools because so many parents kept their elementary-age children home or rushed to pick them up early Wednesday after hearing news of the probable flu cases, Beard said.

He said the closures may last longer and that he followed the recommendations of health officials, who advised closing the schools for seven to 10 days in the 30,000-resident city about 50 miles southwest of Dallas.

"It's a novel virus. We don't know much about it," Dr. James Zoretic, a regional director of the Texas Department of State Health Services, said at a news conference Wednesday in Cleburne. "We need to slow it down. If we don't congregate, we don't spread it."

Beard said the district is still waiting for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to confirm the cases, which could take several days. The CDC has confirmed 16 cases in Texas.

Tracy Allen, after picking up two of her three children at a middle school in Cleburne on Wednesday, said she planned to spend the rest of the day watching movies and munching on snacks at home with her youngsters.

"I am not that concerned. I think they are taking all the precautions necessary to make sure our schools are clean and well disinfected," Allen said. "I think it is still pretty isolated at this point."

Before Fort Worth announced its schools' closings, Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott said earlier Wednesday that 53,000 of the state's 4.7 million public school students were affected by the closures.

At least four other Texas school districts also were closed, and all high school sports competitions in the state were suspended until May 11 because of fears about the illness, state officials said.

The Schertz-Cibolo ISD near San Antonio closed all 14 schools, including a high school where three of the state's confirmed cases of swine flu were found. The entire Rio Grande City Consolidated Independent School District also closed for the week after two suspected cases were discovered at a middle school. The Comal and New Braunfels school districts were closed through May 8 because of suspected cases.

Individual schools in some districts — including Dallas, McAllen, Lewisville and Austin — were closed because of confirmed or suspected cases.

Because of the closures and parents keeping children home on their own, students were missing school on an important day for standardized state tests. But Scott said no district that closes because of swine flu concerns will be penalized in a financial or academic way.

"Quite frankly that's really the last thing a lot of those districts need to be worried about right now. We will accommodate them. We will test the students when they come back," he said.

Scott said the state will offer "waiver days" to make sure schools don't have to make up those days in the summer. If students are unable to be tested, the state will work with those districts to adjust their accountability ratings accordingly.

Scott said his message to families is this: "If you're sick, now is not the time to be worried about the perfect attendance award. Stay home, get better and let this thing run its course."

He added that the vast majority of Texas schools are operating normally and that many TAKS tests are being administered this week.

The decision to postpone all high school sports across the state was made at the urging of public health officials, University Interscholastic League Executive Director Charles Breithaupt said.

The move suspends the baseball season and eliminates the regional track championships, he said.

The state golf and tennis championships are scheduled to begin May 11. The state track meet, one of the largest high school track and field competitions in the country, remains scheduled for May 13-14.

All UIL academic competitions were postponed as well.

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