By Maria Glod and Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 1, 2009
Nearly 300 schools nationwide were closed yesterday to avoid the spread of swine flu, and education and health officials in the Washington area and elsewhere were working in tandem to reassure worried parents and weigh whether more campuses should be shuttered.
The bulk of the closures were in Texas, where the 147-school Fort Worth system closed for 10 days after confirmation of one case of swine flu at one campus and probable cases at three others. As of noon yesterday, schools in 10 other states reported closures to the U.S. Education Department.
In Maryland, Montgomery County school officials decided late last night to close Rockville High School today after a probable flu case was reported. But schools in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties with probable flu cases have remained open under advice from health officials, but classrooms were a little emptier as many parents chose to keep their children home. Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and state health officials said there was no need to cancel school because the infected students had not been in school since last Friday -- a span of time beyond the suspected incubation period -- and because they could tie each case to a relative who had been to Mexico, where the disease is believed to have originated.
As fear about the virus spreads and the slightest sniffle makes parents uneasy, the decision to close schools is a complex call. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance but says the decision should be made case by case in consultation with local health officials. Schools are stocking up on soap and hand sanitizer, and parents are sending their children off with the reminder to wash their hands -- a lot.
School and health officials say they are acting with caution, carefully monitoring cases of confirmed or suspected flu. But canceling school is difficult on families that must scramble to make child-care arrangements. Also, valuable learning time can be lost, and closures are effective only if those who are sick remain isolated.
"It was an agonizing decision," said Fort Worth schools spokesman Clint Bond. Officials initially decided to close only the four schools in which students have confirmed or probable flu, but because some have siblings at other schools, the call was made to shut the entire system.
Marti Herman spent much of yesterday at home in Fort Worth, reading text messages about various activities for her two school-age children that have been canceled. "It's like a snow day with no snow," she said. "Nobody really knows what to do. We're not doing movies. We're not doing the mall. We're not really doing play dates. I'm thinking it's going to be a long 10 days."
More than 1,700 people, including school officials, nurses and representatives from education associations, joined a Tuesday conference call held by the federal education and CDC officials about the virus. A second call was held yesterday. The message to school officials: Work closely with federal, state and local health agencies. Schools should strongly consider closing if a student or employee is confirmed to have the flu, if there is a suspected case linked to a confirmed case or if there is a confirmed case in the community.
"Every school district in every community needs to do what's right for them," Massie Ritsch, an Education Department spokesman, said.
Lynn Goldman, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, said school officials are rightly worried about the spread of the virus. Because the strain is new, she said, children have very little immunity, and the disease can spread quickly.
But she said schools should decide whether to close based on the particular facts, including the contact a possibly infected student has had with peers or adults in the building.
"It's an individual decision that has to do with the potential of disease transmission in that school," Goldman said. "Say that child hasn't been in school, and it's not plausible the child had the flu while in school. There's no danger of transmission."
Montgomery school officials yesterday learned from a Takoma Park Elementary teacher that her husband, a World Bank employee who was recently in Mexico, tested positive for swine flu in a preliminary screening. The teacher agreed to go home, as did the couple's two children, who attend Westland Middle and Einstein High, but the schools remained open. The teacher and children are expected to be cleared to return as early as today.
School officials say there is little risk because none of the three has fallen ill. Parents at the three schools were notified in recorded telephone calls yesterday afternoon.
Superintendent Jerry D. Weast urged parents not to overreact. "We've got to deal with this in a human way," Weast said. "We've got to treat people as we would want to be treated."
At Anne Arundel's Folger McKinsey Elementary in Severna Park, where one student was suspected to have swine flu, nearly half of the student body did not attend yesterday. School officials took extraordinary measures to assuage parents' fears, wiping down surfaces with a powerful disinfectant. An e-mail blast to parents said buses were also being disinfected and new air filters installed throughout the building.
Matt Myers, walking his two daughters to school, said his family spent much of the night deciding whether to go to school. "The kids wanted to go, and we didn't really have a reason for them not to," he said. "It's tough, because you don't want to scare your children."
Staff writers William Wan and Lisa Rein contributed to this report.