Districts Weigh Closing Schools As Virus Spreads

A public school in Chicago is among the growing number of U.S. schools closing due to swine flu, despite the fact that there are a small number of confirmed cases in schools. But some schools are erring on the side of caution and closing at the first sign of potential flu.

That's what happened at Joyce Kilmer Elementary School on the city's North Side. Terry Mason, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said the alarm started when one child at the school had flulike symptoms.

"We then looked at attendance records, identified that there were more students absent than usual, and while we wanted to investigate that, we decided to close the school," Mason said.

The threat of the flu is not a new one for schools, and many have contingency plans for containing outbreaks.

Robert Dawkins, headmaster of the Newberry Academy in Newberry, S.C., says he's dealt with flu threats before, but has never had to close the school. Newberry Academy has been closed since Monday and will remain shut all week because a dozen students fell ill after a school trip to Mexico. Only one child is actually suspected of having swine flu. He says that at this point, it will be hard for students to make up the lost classroom time.

"We don't have any days built in this late in the year to make up anything," he says.

In the meantime, Dawkins says, he'll have the school scrubbed down. Experts say that can help, although just shutting down the building for a few days may do the job — the virus can't survive long out in the open air.

Deciding To Close A School

The decision on whether to close a school is being made locally, in conjunction with state health authorities, based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. President Obama repeated that advice Wednesday, stressing that if there's doubt, schools should close.

Speaking at the White House, the president said, "It's also the recommendation of our public health officials that schools with confirmed or suspected cases of H1N1 should strongly consider closing so that we can be as safe as possible."

In most cases, it's an individual school closing down. New York City officials have focused on St. Francis Preparatory School, a private school in Queens, after dozens of suspected cases followed a school trip to Mexico. And Tuesday, a New York public school closed as well.

But in Texas, entire school systems have ground to a halt. Belinda Pustka, superintendent of the 14-school Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City Independent School District outside San Antonio, says all schools have been closed since Monday and will remain closed all week.

Pustka says health officials gave her these instructions: If there's an infected student at a high school, she should close the high school. If three schools in the district had to close, all the schools would close.

As a result, Pustka says, within 24 hours, her district had to close the doors of every school. Throughout Texas, at least 53,000 students are out of school, and one official said that more closures are likely.

But in many places, the biggest challenge is making sure that students in unaffected systems still show up. Parents in Washington, D.C., received a recorded voice mail message this week assuring them that there were no cases of swine flu in the system.

And one school official on the West Coast says an incident at his school was aggravated by the availability of instant communications. As soon as news got out that a child was sick at his school, students sent panicky text messages to parents, asking them to please take them home early.

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