Image: Worker disinfects high school in Cibolo, Texas
Eric Gay  /  AP file
A worker disinfects a classroom Monday at Byron P. Steele High School in Cibolo, Texas, where all public schools and parks were closed for the rest of the week.
By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 4/29/2009 8:42:45 PM ET 2009-04-30T00:42:45

Education leaders sought to reassure parents Wednesday that they had plans in place to deal with a potential swine flu pandemic and stressed that classrooms by and large remained safe places for children after President Barack Obama suggested that more schools may have to close.

So far, school closings largely have been limited to districts where one or more infections with the new H1/N1 strain of influenza have been confirmed. Nearly 200 campuses have closed in Texas, most of them in the Fort Worth district, with the rest scattered in a handful of states.

In addition to Texas — which is along the border with Mexico, where the outbreak originated — concern is especially sharp in New York, where at least 28 students are known to have been infected at a single private school.

In San Diego and Imperial counties in California, one public school and a few private schools had closed after five cases among students were confirmed. But Jack O’Connell, the state superintendent of schools, reiterated Wednesday that “our schools are safe,” adding: “We want students to continue to come to school.”

The superintendent of schools in Charleston County, S.C., sent a letter to parents on Wednesday assuring them precautions were being taken. "The Charleston County School District and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) are working together to prevent the spread of Swine Flu by keeping in close touch with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); communicating with staff, students, and parents; and following the same kinds of universal precautions that have helped us in the fight against seasonal flu and other viruses,” wrote Nancy J. McGinley.

Administrators across the nation echoed that message in similar communications and in statements to the news media after Obama told reporters that “schools with confirmed cases ... should consider closing if the situation becomes more serious.”

Schools have key role to play
Still, the potential for a pandemic poses a conundrum for school officials, who must balance their critical role in monitoring the spread of the virus by staying open with their responsibility to keep children safe.

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O’Connell said the role of schools as a central gathering place for families from all walks of life made classrooms an ideal lab for early detection and prevention of infections.

All public school systems nationwide are required by federal law to maintain a pandemic response plan. Among other things, they can can send vital information home with students early in the spread of a virus, and because many of them operate computerized phone trees connecting them to parents, health officials can piggyback on the systems to send out phone blasts of warnings, updates and educational information at a moment’s notice.

In Vermont, for example, health officials are using the state’s schools as a primary way to communicate with residents, sending their swine flu advisories home with students.

Terry B. Grier, superintendent of the San Diego County Unified School District, put the system to work Monday, sending a note home with students alerting parents to the county’s swine flu hotline and asking them to be on the lookout for illness in their children.

“We will continue to closely monitor our schools and children, respond to any public health announcements and rapidly provide information through our Web site and automated phone system,” Grier wrote.

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Diana Rouse, director of student services for the Lansing, Mich., School District, said: “We’re being very proactive.”

“We’re having our nurses go out to the schools,” Rouse said. “We have a letter that’s going to secretaries and principals today, and then we have something that will be going to parents.”

Gauging when to close
At the same time, classrooms are also notorious incubators for infections of all sorts. That means officials must be ready to make the difficult call to tip the balance toward safety and close the schools.

Most school systems follow a formula, choosing to shut down when student absenteeism reaches a certain level, said Tom Ferguson, assistant superintendent of schools in Shelby County, Ala.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services maintains a Web site offering a checklist of guidelines and procedures for school leaders to follow. That takes some of the guesswork out of the equation.

“We know that in closing schools, our superintendent [would make the call], looking at the data, looking at the absenteeism,” Ferguson said. “Maybe the rate of illness would raise a flag.”

But superintendents and principals have wide discretion. In Mira Mesa, Calif., Christ the Cornerstone Academy closed Monday, at the urging of San Diego County health officials, after just one of its students was diagnosed with swine flu.

“There is some concern about potential illness among contacts, including teachers of one of the previously confirmed cases,” county health officials said in a statement. “The closure is a precaution to make sure the virus does not spread among the school population.”

Schools go on the offensive
Only a few dozen swine flu cases have been confirmed nationwide, limited so far to a small number of states. But New York health officials said it was possible that hundreds of students had been infected, and officials there and elsewhere are taking no chances, because swine flu “spreads through a room pretty easily, [such as] a classroom of kids,” said Mike Taylor, a surveillance epidemiologist for the Eastern Idaho Public Health District.

“We don’t want to spread this around,” Taylor said. “We don’t know how bad it is at this time.”

In the meantime, school officials are keeping a close watch over their students and staying in touch with local, state and national health authorities. As long as their classes remain open, they are taking precautions, including disinfecting areas throughout school buildings.

“This isn’t a situation to panic in, but it is a situation in which you should increase your normal precautions,” said Jeanne Collins, superintendent of the Burlington, Vt., public schools.

Said Kim Norris, a spokeswoman for the Columbus City public schools in central Ohio: “The bottom line is we have a plan in place. We’re following it — as it comes in.”

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