Published Online: May 18, 2009

N.Y.C. Officials Urge Calm as More Schools Close

Four more public schools and one Catholic school closed Monday as New York City officials sought to tamp down fears of a widening swine flu outbreak that has claimed the life of a popular school administrator.

"The good news is everyone is working together to make sure everyone stays calm," Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said.

But Nukeesha Swinnie, a public school parent and a graduate of the school whose assistant principal, Mitchell Wiener, died Sunday, said the city was not doing enough to slow the spread of the virus.

"They should close all the schools," a tearful Swinnie said at the makeshift memorial to Wiener at Intermediate School 238. "Don't wait for it to start."

The city Health Department said four Queens schools in three buildings were closing for up to five school days starting Tuesday. Earlier Monday, a private Catholic boys' school in Manhattan, St. David's School, decided on its own to close.

The latest closings come on top of Sunday's announced closing of four public schools and a Catholic school, bringing the total to 16 schools.

Hospital and city officials say complications besides the virus probably played a part in Wiener's death, but his family has said he suffered only from gout, a joint disease.

Autopsy results were awaiting further tests, said Ellen Borakove, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner's office.

Funeral arrangements hadn't been announced Monday, and Wiener's son Adam asked a reporter Monday to respect the family's wish to grieve privately.

Wiener's death was the sixth swine-flu-related fatality in the U.S.; officials have also reported three in Texas, one in Washington state and one in Arizona.

Wiener had taught in New York City for decades, starting as a substitute teacher in 1978. Since 2007, he had been an assistant principal at I.S. 238, also known as the Susan B. Anthony Intermediate School, in the Hollis neighborhood of Queens.

Swinnie said she attended the school, as did two of her children. She said one son, now 17, was "a rough kid" but Wiener took him in hand and made sure he passed.

"Mr. Wiener took a lot of time with him," she said. "He calmed him down."

As of Monday the swine flu virus has sickened more than 8,800 people in 40 countries, including more than 70 deaths.

The school closures in New York City affected more than 14,000 students. New York has the nation's largest public school system, with 1.1 million students. All but two of the closed schools are public.

No one else in the city besides Wiener has become seriously ill from the virus. Most people sickened from swine flu, or the H1N1 virus, have complained of mild, seasonal flu-like symptoms such as fever, cough, sore throat, body aches and fatigue.

The city health department said it is monitoring unusual clusters of flu cases as it works to stop the spread of the virus. Officials hope the school closures will help slow the spread of the virus "within the individual school communities," Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden said.

Klein joined union officials at Intermediate School 73 in Queens to urge calm.

But some staff members at there said the school should have been closed.

Teaching assistant Aurora Benitez said 10 to 12 students in her classroom alone were absent Monday.

"I think they should close down the school," Benitez said. "Why wait for students to get sick to shut it down? But it's not up to us."

Asked Monday if the city had acted too slowly in closing schools, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, "There is no right answer. We'll take a look when there is a cluster, an outbreak of an abnormal number of kids coming to see the school nurse with confirmed fever."

Gov. David Paterson said state school and health officials are working to create a way to quickly gather information about absent students so potential outbreaks can be caught and schools closed before illness spreads.

New York City schools scan attendance figures into a database so that by the end of the day, officials know attendance citywide and can get the information quickly to health officials, said Margie Feinberg, a spokeswoman for city's Department of Education.

Health officials urged people with underlying health conditions to see their doctors if they believe they may have been exposed to swine flu. That includes people with diabetes, people whose immune systems are compromised because of certain cancer medications, pregnant women, elderly people and infants.

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