Swine-flu fears continue to disrupt school systems throughout the United States, none more so than in Texas, where at least 30 campuses have closed and important standardized tests have been disrupted.
Three suburban San Antonio high school students were among the state’s six confirmed cases as of early Wednesday morning, and three Dallas-area children, ages 4 to 14, were among other suspected cases.
Those cases prompted campus shutdowns in both locales, as well as in one district 50 miles north of Dallas and one in and around Rio Grande City, which sits on the eastern portion of Texas’ border with Mexico.
Add the fact that parents kept hundreds of children home for fear of possible infection, and the result was that thousands of elementary and secondary students missed portions of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills on Monday and Tuesday. The tests gauge reading, writing, math, science, and social studies skills.
A state education spokeswoman says officials are working on a retesting schedule, but it won’t be completed until it’s known how long schools will be closed.
A charter school in Dallas was also temporarily closed after learning one of its students probably had the infection.
Schools Called ‘Germinators’
In California, one public school and a few private schools had closed Tuesday because of confirmed swine-flu cases or investigations into illnesses. But with many of the suspected cases among children, officials were giving special attention to schools, considered rich breeding grounds for infections.
“In influenza viruses of any kind, much of the transmission in the community happens among school-age children,” said Arthur Reingold, the head of the Division of Epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley.
State health officials said that as of Tuesday night, there were 11 confirmed swine-flu cases in California. Individual counties have reported other cases that have yet to be confirmed by the state.
Schools can be leading indicators of public health outbreaks, so the Department of Education hosted a conference call this afternoon to guide education officials on how to identify, contain, report and prevent swine influenza in school facilities. Public-health and epidemiology experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and President Obama’s Homeland Security Council joined officials from the Department’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools to update the education community on the flu outbreak and recommend procedures for dealing with it.
More than 1,400 participants from school districts, state education offices and education associations across the United States listened in and asked a range of questions, many of which the CDC answers at its continually updated Swine Influenza site. (You can add CDC’s useful swine flu widget to your own Web site to funnel users to the Centers’ continually updated information.) CDC also advises common-sense measures for preventing flu—stay home if you’re sick, avoid close contact and wash your hands, among other steps.
One frequently asked question from today’s call: Under what circumstances should schools close? A few U.S. schools have closed. CDC offers this interim guidance, recommending strong consideration of closure of schools with a confirmed case of swine flu or suspected case that has been epidemiologically linked to a confirmed case. Broader school dismissal should be left to local authorities, taking into account the extent of [influenza-like illness] in the community.
If your school or district does decide to close, please notify the Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools (OSDFS) by e-mail to email@example.com, in addition to your local public health authority. Educators may also e-mail OSDFS with questions about the proper response to swine influenza cases, and how to prevent the flu at schools.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who received a briefing about swine flu from federal public health officials on Monday, encourages all schools, districts and states to monitor closely the health of their populations, communicate with local health authorities and political leaders and proceed with the safest and healthiest course for their students and communities. The Department of Education will post additional resources for educators, along with FAQs stemming from today’s conference call and a transcript of it, on ED.gov. Stay tuned to ED.gov’s blog for updates.
Source: U.S. Department of Education
The problem lies in students, especially very young ones, who lack hygiene skills such as keeping coughs and sneezes to themselves, said Dr. Bonnie Sorensen, chief deputy director of the California Department of Public Health.
“Our schools are the germinators,” she said.
Teachers at Highlands Elementary School in Pittsburg—approximately 25 miles from Oakland and 50 from Sacramento—contacted parents Tuesday night to tell them the school will be closed for a week after tests from Contra Costa County health officials revealed three probable cases among 4th graders.
County health departments are tracking cases and advising schools whether to close, Sorensen said. The state also is making instructional materials on hygiene available for schools to post in classrooms. School authorities, meanwhile, say parents shouldn’t keep healthy children home.
“Our schools are safe. We want students to continue to come to school,” said Jack O’Connell, California’s state superintendent of public instruction.
N.Y.C. Students on Mend
In New York City, the principal of the Catholic school with the largest number of confirmed swine-flu cases in the city says many of the sickened students are improving.
St. Francis Preparatory School Principal Brother Leonard Conway says that he’s been getting reports from parents that students who were ailing on Thursday and Friday are getting better.
There are 28 confirmed cases of swine flu at the 2,700-student school, which was shut down this week after becoming one of the first places in the United States to report cases of people infected with the virus.
City Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden has said “many hundreds” of students at St. Francis were ill with symptoms resembling swine flu. A nearby school whose students have siblings at St. Francis was shut down as well after more than 80 students called in sick this past week.
Chicago School Shut
Meanwhile, Chicago school officials shut down an elementary school Wednesday after one child contracted a probable case of swine flu, and the Illinois Department of Public Health said other cases are suspected elsewhere in Illinois.
In Chicago, attendance dropped at Joyce Kilmer Elementary School before the student was found to have a probable case of swine flu, school officials said.
Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Terry Mason said the child is recovering at home.
“Parents should not be alarmed, but they should be prepared,” he said. “If children are sick, keep them home.”
Chicago Public School officials said that for privacy reasons they aren’t releasing any information about the student, including how the child may have contracted the illness. A specimen from the child has been sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to test for swine flu, said Illinois department of public health spokeswoman Kelly Jakubek.
Mason said the school would be cleaned, but emphasized that the flu spreads through contact between people.
“It’s not doorknobs and water faucets, it’s children coughing and sneezing,” he said. “We want to emphasize that the building is not a problem.”
Case in Minnesota
In Minnesota, the state’s first probable case of swine flu has been detected in a person at Rocori Middle School in the Cold Spring, about 60 miles northwest of Minneapolis, and local officials closed that school and one other there as a precaution.
The person who became ill was not identified. Health Commissioner Sanne Magnan said the person was not hospitalized and was expected to make a full recovery. Magnan said the person did not travel to Mexico, but was believed to have had contact with someone who did.
State officials had said in recent days they expected swine flu to appear in Minnesota.
“We will have cases,” State Epidemiologist Ruth Lynfield said. “But that’s OK. We deal with seasonal influenza outbreaks every year. This is going to be different. It may become more virulent, less virulent, we have to keep up with it and see what there is to do.”
Added Lynfield: “We have been preparing for this for almost 10 years.”
Edweek.org Intern Ian Quillen contributed to this report.
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A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2009 edition of Education Week