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Districts Weigh Closing Schools As Virus Spreads
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Districts Weigh Closing Schools As Virus Spreads



The number of U.S. schools closing due to swine flu is growing. That's despite the fact the number of confirmed cases in schools is still small. As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, many districts are erring on the side of caution and closing at the first sign of potential flu.

LARRY ABRAMSON: The Chicago public schools added to the tally today by closing Joyce Kilmer Elementary School on the city's north side. The reason: one child with flu-like symptoms and a strange number of absences according to Chicago Health Commissioner, Terry Mason.

Mr. TERRY MASON (Commissioner, Chicago Department of Public Health): We had an index case. We then looked at the attendance records, identified that there were more students absent than usual and while we wanted to investigate that we decided to close the school.

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

Mr. ROBERT DAWKINS (Headmaster, Newberry Academy): We've had flu but I've been here 26 years and we've never had anything that we had to close for with the exception of weather.

ABRAMSON: Robert Dawkins is headmaster of the Newberry Academy in Newberry, South Carolina. His school has been closed since Monday and will remain shut all week because a dozen students fell ill following a school trip to Mexico. Only one child is actually suspected of having swine flu. Dawkins says at this point it will be hard for students to make up all this lost time.

Mr. DAWKINS: It really will be because we don't have any days built in this late in the year to make up anything.

ABRAMSON: Dawkins says in the meantime he'll have the school scrubbed down. Experts say that can help although just shutting the building down for a few days may do the job. The virus can't survive long out in the open air. The decision on whether to close the school is being made locally in conjunction with state health authorities based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. President Obama today repeated that advice stressing that if there's doubt schools should close.

President BARACK OBAMA: It's also the recommendation of our public health officials that schools with confirmed or suspected cases of H1N1 should strongly consider temporarily closing so that we can be as safe as possible.

ABRAMSON: In most cases it's an individual school closing down. New York City officials have focused on St. Francis Preparatory, a private school in Queens, with dozens of suspected cases following a school trip to Mexico. Yesterday, a New York public school closed as well. But in Texas, entire school systems have ground to a halt. Belinda Pustka is superintendent of the Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City School District outside San Antonio. It has 14 schools.

Dr.. BELINDA PUSTKA (Superintendent, Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City School): They are still all closed and right now we noted they will be closed through Friday. But we're waiting to hear if they will extend that further.

ABRAMSON: Throughout Texas 53,000 students are stuck at home, although the students may not mind nearly as much as their parents. But in many places, the biggest challenge is making sure that students in unaffected systems do show up.

Unidentified Man: Please be assured that no cases of swine flu have been reported in the District of Columbia or in DCPS. However, as a precaution…

ABRAMSON: This recorded announcement was left this week on the message machines of parents in the Washington DC public schools in an effort to reassure them. Once school official on the West Coast says a flu incident at his school was aggravated by 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.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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