Worries about the spread of swine flu mounted Thursday as the nation’s caseload passed 100, and nearly 300 schools closed in communities across the country.
The number of closed schools more than doubled to nearly 300 when the Fort Worth Independent School District in Texas announced it was closing its 140 schools, affecting about 80,000 students. High schools sports were suspended in Texas and Alabama.
“We do think it’s very prudent to close schools when a case has been confirmed or is highly suspect,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told lawmakers Thursday.
Yet officials stressed that closing schools wouldn’t necessarily stop community spread. “If a school is closed, it’s not closed so kids can go out to the mall or go out to the community at large,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said. “Keep your young ones at home.”
Cases Confirmed in 18 States
The CDC confirmed 109 cases Thursday, and state officials confirm 24 more. Cases now are confirmed in: New York, Texas, California, South Carolina, Kansas, Massachusetts, Indiana, Ohio, Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Delaware, Maine, Colorado, Georgia, Minnesota and Virginia.
President Barack Obama said Wednesday that schools should close temporarily if any students have confirmed or suspected cases of swine flu.
He was reiterating guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Education Department.
Here are their recommendations for schools:
Schools and child care centers should close if they have a confirmed case of swine flu or a suspected case that is linked to a confirmed case. All school-related gatherings should be canceled, and parents and students should avoid gatherings outside of school as well.
Decisions about closing other facilities nearby should be left to local authorities. Big gatherings linked to schools or other places where swine flu cases have been confirmed should be canceled.
Schools and child care centers should consult with local and state health departments. They may consider reopening if no additional confirmed or suspected cases are found within seven days.
Schools should inform students, parents and staff about the symptoms, which can include cough, sore throat, body aches, headaches and fever.
They should stress preventive measures such as washing hands frequently and covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing.
Students with flu-like symptoms should be referred to a health care provider. Experts say there is no need to single out students who have recently traveled to Mexico; they should only be asked to stay home if they have flu symptoms.
Those who have the flu should stay home for seven days after the onset of the illness. But other so-called “social distancing” measures are not recommended.
The Education Department has created an e-mail address, email@example.com, for education leaders and school staff to ask questions and report any closings because of swine flu. The CDC Web site is www.cdc.gov. The Education Department Web site is www.ed.gov.
So far U.S. cases are fairly mild for the most part, with one death, a Mexican toddler who visited Texas with his family—unlike in Mexico where more than 160 suspected deaths have been reported. In fact, Schuchat said most of the U.S. cases so far didn’t need a doctor’s care.
In Texas, confirmed cases of swine flu climbed to 26 on Thursday, and the state pledged to create guidelines about when schools should shut down over an outbreak that is keeping some 167,000 students home.
After meeting with Gov. Rick Perry, school district superintendents around San Antonio said consistency was needed because parents had questioned why some campuses were closed and others were not.
“We’re looking at Fort Worth and saying, ‘What constituted that?’ ” said Richard Middleton, superintendent of North East school district in San Antonio. “That’s the precedent we’ve got to worry about.”
A day after the Fort Worth school district announced it was closing all 144 schools until May 8, state health officials requested that Guadalupe County close most public and private schools until May 11—and maybe longer.
The county leads the state with nine confirmed cases, has another 14 “highly probable” cases and about 100 suspected cases awaiting further testing, Guadalupe County Judge Mike Wiggins said Thursday.
One of Guadalupe County’s school districts, Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City, closed its 14 schools earlier this week. That leaves three other districts and some private schools in the county east of San Antonio.
The closures of about 300 Texas schools are causing dilemmas for parents.
“Well, I’ve got to find baby sitters, find somebody to keep her while I work and then also got to pay somebody to pick her up for me from the baby sitter, so it’s going to be hectic for a whole week,” Chimere Stephen said Thursday morning after taking her daughter to her Fort Worth elementary school before hearing that schools were closed. “But I’ll manage.”
Fort Worth School District Superintendent Melody Johnson urged companies to be flexible and understanding with their employees whose children attend schools suddenly closed.
“I’m sure our business community can come up with some very creative ideas like rotating shifts without creating undue hardships on families financially,” Johnson said Thursday. “This is something that probably happens once in anybody’s lifetime, probably once in a century—hopefully, anyway—so this is a very unusual time and it calls for an unusual response.”
At least six other Texas school districts have been closed entirely, as are a few public and private schools in about a dozen cities. Officials are disinfecting school buildings, buses and playground equipment.
New York Hit Hard
One week after swine flu first broke out at a private school in New York City, 16 more New Yorkers likely have the virus and several more are expected to be confirmed at a city public school.
The city expects the CDC to confirm more positive tests for swine flu at a school for autistic children a few blocks from the private St. Francis Preparatory School in Queens, where hundreds of students were sickened, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.
The expected confirmed cases at P.S. 177, coming on top of 49 positive swine flu tests citywide, would be the first in the city’s 1.1 million-pupil public school system, the largest in the nation.
At St. Francis, the nation’s largest Roman Catholic high school, the principal of the school said Thursday that the 45 students with confirmed cases of swine flu there were recovering.
Brother Leonard Conway said they were “hopefully home resting and doing online assignments for school.”
Three Brooklyn Catholic schools where some students have reported being ill remained closed Thursday; the Health Department said they found no evidence that any students needed to be tested for swine flu there.
Scattered Closings Elsewhere
In Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Health Department closed three Milwaukee elementary schools and one high school Wednesday after a number of children showed symptoms consistent with swine flu.
Officials at a Catholic school in Milwaukee closed its two campuses Thursday and Friday as a precaution. No probable or confirmed cases of the swine flu had been associated with the parochial St. Anthony School, which has about 1,050 students.
Sixth-grade teacher Dave Marsicek said more than half of his 32 students didn’t show up Thursday morning, and the rest understood the reason for the closure.
“I think they knew what was going on. We didn’t need to have a discussion,” said Marsicek, who spent the day in an empty classroom grading papers and preparing lesson plans.
In Utah, the Park City school district closed its eight schools late Wednesday, after three students in the district were named as among three probable cases of swine flu in the state. The move forced 4,400 students to stay home at least through Monday. Sporting events were called off and the high school prom set for Saturday has been rescheduled.
In Maryland, Montgomery County Public School officials say they’re closing Rockville High School until further notice due to a probable swine flu case involving a student.
Schools officials say the school will be closed on Friday under the order of state and county health officials.
Deputy Secretary for Public Health Frances Phillips says the student represents the ninth probable case of swine flu in the state.
Montgomery County’s health director Dr. Ulmer Tillman says the student last attended school on Monday. School officials were alerted to the case around 6:30 p.m. Thursday.
‘Abundance of Caution’
In Alabama, state officials shut down schools for about 31,000 students in Madison County and postponed athletic events to try to curb spread of the disease.
After two probable cases of swine flu were reported in Madison County, Huntsville’s 52 city schools and another 10 in Madison were closed from Thursday through Monday. The school attended by two 6-year-old kindergartners believed to have swine flu, Heritage Elementary in Madison, will be closed even longer, for at least a week.
State Health Officer Don Williamson said Thursday that while his agency only recommended closing Heritage, local officials did the right thing in closing the others out of an “abundance of caution.”
“Local decision-making becomes important, and the people on the ground in Madison County had the best handle of what else needed to be done,” he said.
Schools in Washington state, where 13 swine-flu cases were suspected, were also closed as a precaution.
Several schools in Seattle, Federal Way and Everett announced closures of up to a week because of students with suspected cases or because they are related to people with suspected cases.
“The number one thing right now is to be sure kids are safe and we don’t have more kids get sick than need be,” state Superintendent of Public Education Randy Dorn told KCPQ-TV Thursday night.
In Michigan, the 5,330-student Woodhaven-Brownstown School District in suburban Detroit got good news late Thursday when the Wayne County Department of Public Health said an 18-year-old student from Brownstown Township tested negative.
All eight schools were closed at Woodhaven-Brownstown district Thursday and Friday while awaiting results of a flu test given to the high school senior who traveled to Mexico with students and parents for spring break.
A Spanish-language immersion school in the Grand Rapids area also was closed Thursday while waiting for results from a test of a kindergartner.
Janitors were doing additional cleaning of door handles and drinking fountain faucets.
When asked if districts had overreacted to the flu scare, Michigan state officials said schools have the freedom to make their own choices.
Said state Department of Community Health spokesman James McCurtis: “They do what they see is best for their school district.”
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A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2009 edition of Education Week