By Daniel de Vise and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 2, 2009
Officials in Montgomery, Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties yesterday announced extended closures of three schools to isolate children exposed to likely cases of swine flu, urging students in those schools to avoid public places and warning of more potential shutdowns in the days ahead.
Nationwide, at least 434 schools in 18 states had shuttered yesterday to prevent the spread of the flu, leaving more than 245,000 students home, according to the U.S. Education Department. The closure total was up more than 40 percent from Thursday. Federal officials said they expect a further increase and encouraged teachers to prepare materials to send home with students.
Locally, new cases were identified at George Washington University in the District and in Charles County, bringing to 17 the tally of probable or confirmed cases of swine flu across Maryland, the District and Virginia. Maryland authorities reported 67 additional possible cases awaiting further testing.
The case of a Montgomery student, which prompted Rockville High School to close, marked what officials called a worrisome shift in the local progression of the illness. It was described as the first probable swine flu case with no link to anyone who had visited Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak.
The afflicted Rockville teen is a special-needs student who developed flu symptoms Tuesday. Health officials are combing nursing-office logs and interviewing other families in the student's small universe of close contacts for others who might have been exposed. The school is closed indefinitely.
Two new "probable cases" of swine flu infection in Virginia were announced last night by the state's health commissioner, Karen Remley.
She said the cases affected two students at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, who were both recovering well from mild illnesses. Neither student, she said, had traveled outside the United States, but both had recently visited other states.
"The goal here is to stop or at least slow down transmission in the community," said Frances Phillips, deputy Maryland health secretary. "We do not think this is the end of this experience."
Prince George's officials shut down Montpelier Elementary School in Laurel for up to two weeks after learning that an 8-year-old student has a probable case.
Anne Arundel officials announced closure of Folger McKinsey Elementary in Severna Park for at least a week because of a likely flu case in the family of an Obama administration security worker, probably infected during an official trip to Mexico. The closure alarmed parents, who had been told that the ill family members were recovering. As it turned out, that had not changed. School officials were simply following direction from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a conference call with governors of all 50 states yesterday, the CDC said any school with possible cases should be closed.
Two students at GWU who were tested by the D.C. Department of Health were told that they are probably infected, the school said yesterday afternoon. The students have been given private dormitory rooms to limit their exposure to others and are recovering rapidly.
The Charles case involves a 31-year-old man with no link to a school.
Public school officials are accustomed to shutting down for the occasional snowstorm. Now they face an extended closure dictated by health officials, who want schools emptied until the illness has run its course. More school closures seem highly likely. Questions loom about how much illness might trigger the shutdown of an entire school system, a measure taken in Fort Worth. What might prompt such a determination here is "too hard to say at this point, because we haven't had this situation before," said Mary Anderson, a Montgomery health spokeswoman.
The school hiatus threatens to disrupt the highly regimented schedule of public instruction. Rockville High students will sit for a scheduled SAT today in an isolated room at a nearby middle school rather than on their own campus. But what of the athletic contests and Advanced Placement tests scheduled for next week? Students in the Anne Arundel and Prince George's schools were soon to take a state science assessment. Students at all three schools might have to make up lost class time during the summer.
"I want to get back in school so I can get the year over and graduate," said Robert Kirker, a senior at Rockville High.
A more pressing concern is whether students at the afflicted schools will heed the near-quarantine urged by health officials, who are worried that contagion could spread to shopping malls and movies. "Please do not go to the mall and congregate. Please stay home," said Ulder Tillman, Montgomery's health officer, addressing Rockville students at a news conference.
Kirker spent the day with classmates, playing video games and watching news reports. "I don't see any big deal about going out with the people who are already at Rockville," he said. "We all have the same chances of getting it anyway."
The flu has prompted new guidelines on etiquette and hygiene.
The private Norwood School in Bethesda suspended its ritual morning handshake and said students will be met by principals "who may employ alternative greetings such as an elbow bump or at very least will offer a cheery 'Good Morning!' " Montgomery Soccer Inc. advised youth players not to shake hands after games this weekend.
Staff writers Susan Kinzie, Nikita Stewart, Nelson Hernandez, Maria Glod, Michael Birnbaum, Michael Alison Chandler, Steve Hendrix, Bill Turque, Theresa Vargas and Martin Weil contributed to this report.