Schools Open, But Sick Children Should Stay Home

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is rolling back its guidance to schools. The agency now says schools do not need to close, if there are small numbers of students sick with swine flu.

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A second person with swine flu has died in the United States. The Texas Department of Health Services says a 33-year-old woman with underlying health issues, as they were called, died in south Texas. That news comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is easing its guidelines for schools. The agency now says that schools do not need to close, if there are small numbers of students sick with swine flu. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON: The announcement that schools with flu cases can remain open had immediate affect.

Mr. JERRY WEAST (Superintendent of schools, Montgomery County, Maryland): We'll be open on time tomorrow morning.

ABRAMSON: Jerry Weast, superintendent of schools for Montgomery County, Maryland, made that announcement yesterday. He only had one school closed, Rockville High, but it was really bothering him that his high school students were missing SAT exams while the rest of the community was unaffected. He was arguing with his local health director that schools in some parts of the country were allowed to reopen while schools like his had to stay closed.

Mr. WEAST: It was apparent to me when we had gone along with this for a period of two days that there were variances based on what state or jurisdiction you were in about how people were making these calls.

ABRAMSON: Weast was also questioning the benefits of closing so many schools -726 nationwide as of yesterday afternoon - when the disease appeared to be relatively mild.

Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a news briefing yesterday those very concerns led to a policy change.

Mr. RICHARD BESSER (Acting director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): When we hear of the difficulty involved, of children who are dropped at libraries because there's nowhere for home care, of people who could lose their jobs because they don't have sick leave, these factors are really real.

ABRAMSON: So Besser said the CDC decided to drop the recommendation for schools to close to stem the disease. Instead, parents will be strongly urged to keep sick kids at home for at least seven days.

Even before the CDC acted some schools were already looking at ways to limit the impact of the closings. The Park City, Utah, schools yesterday had announced plans to open a high school while leaving other schools closed.

Craig Fiegel, chief of the Plymouth-Canton Schools near Detroit says he only had cases of flu in his high schools. So just before the CDC announcement he was all set to open his elementary schools.

Mr. CRAIG FIEGEL (Chief, Plymouth-Canton Schools): So we were talking about keeping the reminder of our 6,000 high school students out of school.

ABRAMSON: In fact, many superintendents were apparently under particular pressure to keep high schools open. For some, the need to keep seniors on track for graduation and college was paramount. For others, the prospect of canceling athletic events with the attended parental outrage loomed even larger.

Craig Fiegel said he was originally supposed to reopen all schools on Monday, seven days after the first case struck, but he feared that if the flu struck again after Monday he might have to start all over again.

Mr. FIEGEL: So then we would've come back on Monday, then you could've had another case of it again, and so you're back seven days again. And you keep that up you don't get to finish the school year.

ABRAMSON: It will not be easy to turn the learning switch on again, not in places like Texas, which had the largest number of idle schools. Texas Education Agency spokesperson DeEtta Culbertson says with hundreds of districts spread out across the state it may take two to three days for some facilities to get back online.

Ms. DEETTA CULBERTSON (Spokesperson, Texas Education Agency): In some cases, students have left town to go stay with relatives. In other cases, teachers have gone out of town. Cafeterias are going to have to restock. Bus drivers are going to have to get transportation systems going again.

ABRAMSON: Schools now face the challenge of serving as the eyes and ears of the public health system as teachers try to make sure that parents keep sick children out of the classroom.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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