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Schools Close To Stem Swine Flu Spread


From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris. More schools close today due to swine flu. A total of 533 schools, public and private, have now shut down. The number keeps growing and some schools will barely have time to reopen before the year ends. The Centers for Disease Control said it's thinking about making its guidelines on school closures more flexible, there just not doing it quite yet. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Nineteen thousand students in the Plymouth-Canton Community Schools outside Detroit are at home today. That's because one student has a probable case of swine flu. Like other districts Plymouth-Canton officials say they are taking their cue from the State Health Department. James McCurtis, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Community Health, says the rule goes like this…

Mr. JAMES MCCURTIS (Spokesperson, Michigan Department of Community Health): if there's a child who has a probable case the schools or these facilities should close for seven days and if that child has a sibling, then the sibling should stay at home, but that school of the sibling can remain open.

ABRAMSON: McCurtis says he's following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which this weekend extended the closure period to 14 days, up from just seven, but the Plymouth-Canton Schools only plan to stay closed for two days. Local officials get to decide these things. In another example of differing interpretations of the guidelines, in Huntsville, Alabama, last week, three school systems that serve over 50,000 students shut down. Today most of the schools in the three districts around Huntsville are open again.

Mr. DEE FOWLER (Superintendent, Madison City Schools): Our elementary schools are closed. Our secondary schools are open.

ABRAMSON: That's Dee Fowler, Superintendent of the Madison City Schools near Huntsville. He says the Health Department told him that most cases were occurring in younger children. So he got the okay to open his secondary schools, but he says the rules still seem random given the zigzag boundaries between Huntsville's different school districts.

Mr. FOWLER: There are subdivisions where in the street part of the kids go to Madison City Schools and a neighboring county - Limestone County - the kids across the street, go to Limestone County schools.

ABRAMSON: So kids on one side of the street could be stuck at home, the kids on the other side would have school. Epidemiologist Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota says the idea of closing schools made sense when experts sat around a table and tried to predict how the disease would spread.

Dr. MICHAEL OSTERHOLM (Epidemiologist, University of Minnesota): The original plans that were laid out to stem a spreading pandemic really did not take into account the severity of the disease. It was basically assumed that it would get here and it would be bad.

ABRAMSON: But Osterholm says now that the flu doesn't appear to be so bad it's time to change the guidelines.

Dr. OSTERHOLM: And I'm going to make a prediction here that by mid to the end of the week, we will not be closing schools in this country. In fact we'll be merely handling it much more like we do seasonal flu.

ABRAMSON: The CDC agreed in principle today. At a news briefing Acting Director Richard Besser said school closings were not proving effective in areas where the disease is already established.

Dr. RICHARD BESSER: With that information, we are looking at our school closure guidance and we're having very active discussions about whether it's time to revise that.

ABRAMSON: Besser said he is not ready to change that guidance just yet but he did point to an alternative - Seattle's approach to the disease. The city closed three schools last week but Director of Public Health David Fleming says closing more schools would not really help.

Dr. DAVID FLEMING (Director of Public Health, Seattle & King County): And so we have moved instead to a policy that puts the frontline of defense on parents screening their children and on schools to keep infected children out of school.

ABRAMSON: Meanwhile, a number of schools once closed because of swine flu have reopened. That includes St. Francis Prep in New York City which had 45 confirmed cases of flu.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Larry Abramson
Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.