Parents Seek Care as More Schools Close

By Tim Craig and Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 3, 2009

Hundreds of parents in Washington's Maryland suburbs struggled yesterday to make child-care arrangements for the week as new probable cases of swine flu appeared and officials announced the closing of a fourth local school, an elementary school in Prince George's County.

The closings, the latest of which was ordered to last two weeks, appeared likely to create a ripple effect for employers across the region as parents drew up plans to take off work if they cannot make other arrangements.

"Everybody is concerned," said Lisa Penderson, who has three children at Folger McKinsey Elementary School in Severna Park, which is closed until at least Thursday. "A lot of us are working moms, so we are going to try to help each other and watch each other's kids through the time period and hope the school opens Thursday."

State health officials said yesterday that another Folger McKinsey student, the second in three days, had been given a diagnosis of probable swine flu. Another new probable case was diagnosed in Anne Arundel County, a family member of several people previously diagnosed, and one was diagnosed in Harford County. Both involve adults.

Also yesterday, University Park Elementary School in Hyattsville was ordered closed after a teacher was given a diagnosis of probable swine flu.

"We just want to protect everyone," said Donald Shell, the county's health officer. "We don't take lightly keeping children out of school and the imposition on parents."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that any school with possible cases be closed, forcing school officials to explore how students will make up for the lost instructional time, including whether to delay summer vacation.

Montpelier Elementary School in Prince George's and Rockville High School in Montgomery County were ordered closed Friday, as was a school in Baltimore County. Public health officials warn that more schools could close as additional case are discovered.

In Virginia, Maryland and the District, the tally of probable and confirmed cases rose yesterday from 17 to 21. Virginia health officials confirmed that one of two Washington and Lee students suspected of contracting swine flu had contracted it.

Two new probable cases were reported in Delaware yesterday, and for the first time the victims were not students at the University of Delaware. Before yesterday, the 10 confirmed cases and 14 probable cases all involved students at the university's Newark campus.

The new cases involve a student at a special school at Wilmington Hospital for children with medical conditions and a student at an elementary school.

The news from Delaware will probably heighten concern among educators locally, who are grappling with how to deal with school closures and with creating long-range plans in the event of a pandemic.

"We have folks that are trying to explore those possibilities, the ones you hope you don't have to face but certainly understanding that this is an evolving situation," said Steve Simon, a spokesman for Montgomery schools.

Prince George's school officials sent out a recorded phone message yesterday to families in the 130,000-student system, saying that Montpelier Elementary was closing for as long as 14 days starting tomorrow and urging families to wash their hands frequently and take other health precautions.

"We don't want to alarm families at other schools," said spokesman John White, "but we want people to know what is going on."

Some parents are preparing to stay home with their children and, at least temporarily, assume the role of teacher.

"My wife is off Monday, so she printed out math assignments and is going to have them do a research project and then write a report," said Barry Herman of Severna Park, who has two children at Folger McKinsey. "But my wife works on Tuesday and Wednesday, so we're going to have to see if the sitter is available."

At Rockville High, parents said they were hoping to learn by tonight how long the school will be closed.

Given the age of the students, many Rockville High parents said they are under less pressure to find child care but are worried about how the closing will affect the rest of the school year.

"One of the parents told me it just means more time for her son to study for the [Advanced Placement] test coming up," said Stan Thomas, parent-teacher association president. "They are not sweating it at all."

But Thomas, who said Montgomery has used up its allotted snow days, said he hopes the students will not be asked to make up the lost days at the end of the year.

White said Prince George's school officials were talking with state officials about the possibility of receiving a waiver if the schools stay closed for an extended length of time, noting that such a procedure was being done in California.

William Reinhard, spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, said state officials were working with schools to figure out how to make up for lost instructional time.

"We frankly don't know how much time is going to be lost yet," he said.

Staff writers Dan Morse and Clarence Williams contributed to this report.

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