Schools Closed, Many Parents Become Chief Child-Care Providers Again

Homework, reading and playing help fill what would have been a regular school day for John and Mary Heitkemper, students at the closed University Park Elementary School in Prince George's County. Mary said she wouldn't normally play this much with her brother but their friends all have to stay home, too.
Homework, reading and playing help fill what would have been a regular school day for John and Mary Heitkemper, students at the closed University Park Elementary School in Prince George's County. Mary said she wouldn't normally play this much with her brother but their friends all have to stay home, too. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
Buy Photo
By Nelson Hernandez and Daniel De Vise
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Montgomery County School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast took issue yesterday with the closing of Rockville High School to stem the flu, amid indications that federal officials might revise their recommendations on school shutdowns.

Weast's memo to the Montgomery school board came on a day when Prince George's County shut down a third school. The memo appeared a sign of impatience with the stringency of health officials' precautionary policy, aimed at curbing the spread of swine flu.

In his memo on the shutdown, Weast said, "We do not believe that this is the right decision given the lack of compelling evidence for continued closure provided to us by state and county health officials."

One student at Rockville High had been described as a probable victim of swine flu.

In a letter supporting the closing, Maryland Health Secretary John M. Colmers said there were "several suspected cases" of students and staff who were "still sick." That had not been reported previously.

Yesterday, Maryland officials said that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had confirmed four of the state's earliest cases as swine flu and that test results on nine others were pending. Thirty-two new samples arrived at the state lab yesterday for testing. "We expect to see more cases," Colmers said. "I don't think we have reached the crest yet."

In Prince George's, authorities closed Vansville Elementary School in Beltsville last night after a student was determined to have a probable case of swine flu.

In the District, officials reported a fourth probable case involving a university student. They said it was at George Washington University, where the first two were reported. But they said the student was feeling fine and no longer shows flu-like symptoms. At Howard University, a student has fully recovered from the flu but remains isolated.

As experts in the United States and Mexico indicate that the outbreak might be less lethal than thought, there have been more than 20 probable and confirmed cases reported in the District, Maryland and Virginia. No local deaths have been reported. Northern Virginia officials have reported no school closures.

Richard Besser, the acting director of the CDC, said that as of yesterday, there were 286 laboratory-confirmed cases of swine flu in 36 states.

There are 700 "probable" cases, virtually all of which are expected to be confirmed in a day or two.

During a news conference in Atlanta, Besser signaled that the CDC's current recommendation that a school consider closing for up to 14 days if a student is infected might soon change. Part of the rationale for the aggressive stance was to prevent children from becoming "amplifiers" of the outbreak.

"What we're hearing is that schools that are seeing clusters, that are seeing cases, that the virus is already pretty well established in those communities. And so, closing schools as a means of not letting it spread through the community isn't very effective," he said.

That observation, and the mildness of the illness, is leading CDC experts to look "at our school closure guidance" and whether it should be revised, he said.

In addition to Rockville High in Montgomery, University Park Elementary and Montpelier Elementary in Prince George's County and Folger McKinsey Elementary in Anne Arundel County were all closed yesterday. A second Montpelier student was found to have a probable case of flu, officials said yesterday. At Rockville High, closed since Friday, Advanced Placement tests in French and government had been scheduled to be held on campus this week but were given instead at nearby Mark Twain School.

The shutdowns left students at home and many parents of younger children wondering how they would cope. Many parents stayed home with their children.

Day care was largely out because of concerns about spreading the illness. Ditto for offers from stay-at-home parents who might otherwise have volunteered to watch their friends' children. Unleashing children in the mall seemed like a bad idea, and on a rainy day, even playing outside was not an option.

Alex Heitkemper, who has two children at University Park, faced a typical quandary. He is a financial analyst, and his wife, Sarah, is a human resources director. Paying for day care crossed their minds, but they weren't sure that option would even be available for people possibly carrying a virus that is, for now, widely feared. So they decided to stay home.

"We're just going to split it up. I'm going to take a few days off, she's going to take a few days off," Heitkemper said. "There's quite a bit we can do from home. We're going to try to make the kids do a little bit of schoolwork. That's kind of the plan. I don't know what else to do."

Parents tried to make do. First United Methodist Church of Hyattsville offered to watch children, keeping them in small groups. One Montpelier Elementary parent sent her daughter to an out-of-work grandparent. Many stayed at home, either because they have flexible schedules or because they can work online.

They downloaded math and reading homework, worked on art projects, taught music lessons. Anything to keep their children from simply zoning out on television or video games. But those tools came in handy: "I don't like the fact that she's watching too much TV, but sometimes you need to pick your fights," said one parent.

Staff writers Ashley M. Halsey III, David Brown, Michael E. Ruane, Dan Morse, Maria Glod, Paul Duggan, Michael Birnbaum, Martin Weil and Theresa Vargas contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company