Guidelines issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prescribe a conservative approach for schools to deal with students exposed to the new respiratory disease known as SARS.
Unless students show the primary symptoms of SARS—fever, coughing, or trouble breathing—during the 10 days following exposure to someone else with the illness, they should be allowed to attend school, according to the April 10 advisory posted on the CDC Web site.
“Casual contact with a SARS patient at schools, other institutions, or public gatherings ... has not resulted in reported transmission in the United States,” the CDC notes in its one-page advisory.
The agency issued the guidance after a 6-year-old Florida pupil suspected of having SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, was sent home from school in late March.
Since the discovery of SARS last fall in China, more than 3,100 people worldwide have been infected and 144 have died. U.S. and international health officials say the respiratory sickness is caused by a virus that, like the common cold, is spread through close contact with a person who is coughing or sneezing.
To date, the suspected SARS cases reported in the United States involve people who have either been exposed through previous travel to the countries hit hardest by the virus—China, Hong Kong, and Singapore—or close contact with an infected person at home or in a health-care setting.
Schools Defer to CDC
In other countries, the rapid spread of the disease has provoked strong responses from governments, schools, and parents fearful of an outbreak among students.
In Canada, some boarding schools quarantined students returning from trips to China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and the governments of Hong Kong and Singapore shut down their school systems for several weeks.
American schools, on the other hand, appear to have taken news of the infectious lung illness in stride. Other than the Florida case and a private school in Connecticut that ordered 40 students and staff members to stay home for two weeks after returning from a China trip, there has been little reported reaction by schools in the United States so far. (“Schools Take Measures to Safeguard Against New Respiratory Illness,” April 9, 2003.)
On such issues as the CDC’s suggestion that schools not exclude even those students known to have been exposed to SARS, health organizations that guide schools on such matters generally deferred to the federal agency last week.
“We consider the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be the premier authority on infectious disease in the world and, therefore, support the CDC SARS guidance for schools,” said Charlotte Burt, the president of the American School Health Association, based in Kent, Ohio.
“We also recognize that the situation could vary from school to school,” she said, “and think administrators should make local decisions within the context of CDC guidance in consultation with local health authorities.”