While Unnecessary, Swine Flu Closes Schools
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Public health officials are fighting the war against the swine flu this winter. Across the nation, thousands of children have already missed school days because of the H1N1 swine flu virus. Most of those students are being kept home while schools stay open, thanks to new guidance from the federal government. But as NPR's Larry Abramson reports, some schools continue to close, believing this is the only way to slow the spread of the virus.
LARRY ABRAMSON: The Department of Education says that yesterday alone, over 12,000 kids were kept home because 25 schools were shut down in Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina and Tennessee. That's a pretty small number, and shows that most schools are following guidelines that say keep sick kids at home and keep the schools open. But Karen Bridgeman of the Anderson County Schools outside Knoxville, Tennessee, says her system faced a dilemma last week when absenteeism rates climbed past 13 percent.
Ms. KAREN BRIDGEMAN (Anderson County School System): Our thought was if we could get some serious distance, get into our schools and do all of the appropriate precautionary things, that we might be able to take sort of a preemptive strike.
ABRAMSON: So the Anderson County schools shut down for last Thursday, Friday and Monday, hoping to give kids time to recover and staff time to clean up the schools. But Bridgeman says when schools reopened this past Tuesday, the same number of kids were home sick.
Ms. BRIDGMAN: We're still sitting right at 13 percent after five days out of school.
ABRAMSON: The Knoxville area is part of a regional hotspot for the flu. The CDC considers the virus widespread throughout the Southeast. But some neighboring school districts remained open while Anderson County closed. Local officials are operating on their own here. Federal guidelines do not give a magic number that schools must cross before shutting down. Many experts say closing just does not help.
Dr. MICHAEL OSTERHOLM (School of Public Health, University of Minnesota): Children are going to transmit the influenza virus whether they're in school or not.
ABRAMSON: Dr. Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota says school closings cause huge problems. That has to be balanced against the slim chance that a closing will slow the spread of the flu.
Dr. OSTERHOLM: So the real determining factor in closing a school is whether or not there are teachers and adequate number of students that are well to be able just to actually have classes.
ABRAMSON: That's the problem in the Clinton City Schools in Tennessee. Supervisor of Instruction Bill Hodgers says his system is closing today because he can't find enough healthy teachers.
Mr. BILL HODGERS (Supervisor of Instruction, Clinton City Schools): And you just get to a point where you can not find people to come in and you certainly can't have classrooms unattended.
ABRAMSON: Most health systems are not testing to see whether their kids have swine flu. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say nearly all cases appearing this early are swine flue. And while symptoms remain mild, the arrival of the flu is still big news in many communities.
(Soundbite of newscast)
Unidentified Man: Suspected swine flu cases are hitting more Missouri schools hard. A district in Annapolis, in southern Missouri has shutdown for the rest of the week because of the flu.
ABRAMSON: That report from a St. Louis TV station should remain the rare exception compared to the widespread shutdowns of last spring. For those that are hit, the CDC offers this consolation, the common cold results in nearly 22 million lost school days.
Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.
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