U.S. Rethinking Use of School Closings to Combat Swine Flu

The parking lot at Rockville High School was empty and the doors were locked after the school was closed for swine flu in the spring.
The parking lot at Rockville High School was empty and the doors were locked after the school was closed for swine flu in the spring. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
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By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Obama administration is finalizing guidelines that would scale back when the federal government recommends closing schools in response to the swine flu pandemic, several people involved in the deliberations said Monday.

More targeted guidance would mark a change in the government's approach from this spring, when health officials suggested that schools shut down at the first sign of the H1N1 virus. They later relaxed that advice.

This fall, federal authorities would recommend closures only under "extenuating circumstances," such as if a campus has many children with underlying medical conditions, a senior U.S. health official involved in the talks said. The official added that discussions are continuing and that no decision has been made.

Schools also might be advised to close if many students or staff members are already sick or otherwise absent, officials said.

"The framework is to try to keep schools open to the extent possible," the senior health official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the White House has not completed its review of the issue.

School closings this past spring raised questions about whether closings slow the spread of H1N1 and are worth the educational and economic cost. The federal government's decision could have a far-reaching effect on tens of millions of Americans, the economy and other countries wrestling with similar choices.

President Obama's top scientific advisers, Cabinet members and national security aides are racing to update the government's flu strategy before the school year begins this month, when infections are expected to surge -- particularly among young people.

Decisions on school closings will be made locally because the flu's severity varies geographically and because local and state governments have authority over school and public health matters, officials said. Federal guidance could change if the virus becomes more virulent or lethal, officials said.

John O. Brennan, the deputy national security adviser who chaired two Cabinet-level meetings in the White House last week to coordinate H1N1 planning, said the internal debate is intended to "think through all the angles" and avoid "knee-jerk" decisions. He said it is too soon to predict the outcome.

"There will be circumstances where it makes sense to close schools, but what we are trying to do is refine" those instances, he said.

U.S. authorities will release within days other "community-mitigation" measures, intended to help keep businesses operating, help hospitals avoid being overwhelmed and guide local authorities in deciding whether to cancel public events, officials said.

Experts say such decisions are timely because of the quickly approaching fall flu season.

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