U.S. health officials are no longer recommending that schools close because of swine flu.
The government last week advised schools to shut down for about two weeks if there were suspected cases of swine flu. Hundreds of schools around the country have followed that guidance and closed schools.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Tuesday that the swine flu virus had turned out to be milder than initially feared and the government decided to change its advice. Sebelius says parents should still make sure to keep sick children at home. Those with flulike symptoms should stay home for seven days.
The number of confirmed swine flu cases in the United States is now over 400, with hundreds more probable cases.
“Sick students and staff with flu-like symptoms should stay home—or be sent home—for a minimum of seven days, and adults should continue to monitor children’s health (and their own) for flu-like symptoms,” the U.S. Department of Education said Tuesday afternoon in an e-mail to reporters. “Schools should continue to encourage commonsense measures to reduce the flu’s spread.”
The Education Department reported that approximately 726 public and nonpublic schools were closed Tuesday for flu-related reasons, in 24 states and the District of Columbia. The schools closed enroll roughly 468,000 students. Those figures were up from 533 schools enrolling about 330,000 children on Monday.
According to the Education Department, schools were closed Tuesday in Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin.
On Monday, the New York City school that was the epicenter of the nation’s outbreak reopened after a mere weeklong shutdown. Students at St. Francis Preparatory School, a private Roman Catholic high school in Queens, returned to classes with advice to use hand sanitizer and wash their hands more frequently.
As many as 1,000 people connected with the school fell ill with flu symptoms after a group of students returned from a spring break trip to Mexico. The school had the largest swine flu outbreak in the country, with 45 confirmed cases.
“It’s a little nerve-racking, being back in school, knowing that there was a swine flu outbreak in school,” said junior Paulina Janowiec, 17. “But it’s good to be back.”
Last week, the CDC said it might be prudent to close a school for as long as 14 days if there were suspected cases, noting that children are contagious longer than adults do and have more social contacts. But officials also stressed they would defer to the expertise of local authorities.
New York City health officials said they consulted frequently with school administrators to determine when St. Francis should reopen after hundreds of students fell ill at school April 23-24.
“Students and faculty were away from school for nine days, which is well beyond the incubation period for influenza,” said Dr. Scott Harper, an epidemiologist with the city’s Health Department.
“We’re planning it day by day right now,” said Brit Brown, whose 8-year-old son, Truman, has been home since his Milwaukee school closed last Thursday.
Brown and his wife each took a day off work last week. On Monday, they sent their second-grader to his grandparents’ home and on Tuesday planned to drop him off at the home of a friend whose school also had closed.
In Arizona, all 10 public schools in the border city of Nogales canceled classes this week after a student tested positive for swine flu. Deer Park, N.Y., closed seven schools enrolling more than 4,400 kids.
In Massachusetts, the Academy of Notre Dame in Tyngsborough, about 35 miles northwest of Boston, canceled classes and extracurricular activities for the entire week because one student has a probable case.
In New York, 204 of St. Francis’ 2,700 students were out sick Monday. Brother Leonard Conway, the school principal, said that students “have a lot of work to do” to make up the lost classroom time and that final exams will start five days later than usual, on June 16.
“I’m just delighted and thank God that we’re getting back to normal,” he said.
The school flushed the air conditioning system and gave the building a complete scrubdown, among other safety precautions.
“I’m feeling great now,” said returning 16-year-old Ivy Buchelli, who had suffered fever, chills and body aches. “After the long break, I’m glad to see everyone else and how they’re doing.”
“I’m just hoping the school’s clean,” she added.
Associated Press medical writer Mike Stobbe, AP writers Deepti Hajela and Frank Eltman and Education Week Managing Editor Caroline Hendrie contributed to this report.
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