Even 6-year-olds at Hamilton Central School in central New York came to school prepared for swine flu. Jessica Poyer, a first-grade teacher, noticed in the spring that kids had begun bringing their own hand sanitizer, tissues and water bottles.
Poyer, also the mother of two young children, thinks about swine flu, also known as influenza A H1N1, every day, both at school and at home. She knows that some schools nationwide have had to close because the disease was widespread, and she has mixed feelings about the school closures. “I hate to close schools, because it interrupts learning, but we leave it up to health professionals,” said Poyer, who lives in Deansboro, New York. Federal guidance on school closures related to H1N1 will be released Friday by the Department of Health and Human Services, said Thomas Skinner, spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The decision whether to close schools ultimately rests with state and local officials. Districts such as Hancock County Public Schools in Kentucky say they plan to follow federal guidelines. Superintendent Scott Lewis said the schools have trained nurses in every building, and the local disaster relief department has instructed some of the staff. The schools also have hand sanitizer in every classroom, and students will be reminded to use it daily, Lewis said. Students who show signs of illness will be sent home, he said. “We send them home if they’re sick anyway, whether it would be for fever or vomiting,” he said. Ryan Koczot, a teacher at Broad Creek Middle School in Newport, North Carolina, believes that if proper precautions are taken early, such as telling parents to keep their sick children at home, schools will not have to close. He is concerned about creating panic among faculty, staff and students, and about making up lost days at the end of the year.
Swine Flu PreventionOne expert offers these “ABCDs” of swine flu prevention to emphasize to children: A. Avoid touching your your mouth, nose or eyes with your hands.B. Be sure to wash your hands often.C. Cover your coughs and sneezes with your hand or a tissue.D. Don’t go to school if you’re ill.SOURCE: Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, University of California, Los Angeles, School of Public Health
“Let the individual students and parents handle it,” he said. Tara Whittington, a math teacher at Villa Rica High School near Atlanta, Georgia, who makes hand sanitizer available for her students, considers school closures a waste of time if only one student has H1N1, but supports dismissal if a quarter of the students become ill. “By the time a fourth of the students have it, your school may be the cause of it being spread between the students, need to step in and clean it out,” she said. Boston Public Schools in Massachusetts had 10 closings in the spring, which came about through collaborative decisions between the city public health commission and the superintendent, said Matt Wilder, spokesman for the schools. In Georgia, the final decision about closing schools because of H1N1 is usually up to the local school board with input from local and state public health officials, the Department of Community Health said. “Some school closures may be based on operational interruption due to a significant percentage of student and staff absences, while some school closures may be based on a recommendation of public health to reduce the virus spread,” the department said in a statement. The novel virus is known to have been circulating worldwide since April. There have been 353 deaths, and more than 5,500 people have been hospitalized for H1N1 in the United States so far, according to the CDC. In Montgomery County, Maryland, public school principals have been asked to come up with plans for giving students lessons in the event of school closings, said schools spokeswoman Kate Harrison. One option for continuing instruction is a Web resource called Edline, which lets them post lessons and assignments online, she said. There is also a cable television station that could be used to broadcast lessons, she said.
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These Maryland schools, which will follow the guidance of local health authorities on school closings, have also ordered hospital-grade face masks, she said. It is still unclear under what circumstances these masks would be used, but, for example, employees who have to work together closely may use them, she said. Other schools across the country are ramping up their cleaning efforts to prevent H1N1 transmission. At Sherman Independent School District in North Texas, the staff is disinfecting door handles during the upcoming school year, something the school didn’t do before, said Superintendent Al Hambrick. Most schools in the district have hand sanitizer in every classroom, he said. Sherman ISD schools, which have not had any confirmed cases of the virus, will also be distributing informational pamphlets about H1N1, he said. For athletic practices, coaches discourage the sharing of towels and water bottles, Hambrick said. In the spring, the schools canceled field trips to places where there had been reported cases of H1N1, he said. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told government leaders last month that a vaccine to fight the H1N1 virus should be ready for distribution in mid-October.
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At what point schools should close because of the new virus, if ever, is a matter of controversy. A recent study in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases concludes that there are a lot of uncertainties about the consequences of closing schools during a pandemic — for example, the ways that children interact when they are not in school. For example, children may mix with each other at the mall if school is not in session, said Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Public Health, who was not involved with the study. Moreover, school provides a relatively safe environment, whereas other problems could arise outside school such as children getting hit by cars, he said. Disinfecting classrooms may not be so effective, either, because the virus dies within about three hours, he said. “If people will stay away from school when they are sick and do the ABCDs, that will mollify, or make less severe, the transmission of disease in schools,” he said.