Closing schools might not stop flu transmission

Students aren’t the only ones staying home as swine flu spreads through schools across the country. Parents are nursing their ailing kids while trying not to get sick themselves–and the decision to close schools can have repercussions that are felt throughout a community.

Raquel Mooradian and her husband, Greg, have been holed up in their apartment in the New York borough of Queens since their daughter Felicia, 17, fell ill on April 24. Felicia is a senior at St. Francis Preparatory School, where hundreds of students got sick after a group returned from spring break in Mexico.

Raquel has been skipping her classes at a local college, and Greg has called in sick at work. Raquel Mooradian said she covers her face when she goes into her daughter’s bedroom to bring her soup, water, or Gatorade.

“She’s able to talk but says, ‘Let me sleep, let me sleep,'” Raquel said.

As of midday April 29, the latest national accounting available, about 100 of the nation’s 132,000 schools had closed and Texas authorities had suspended high school sports.

But the number of closed schools more than doubled overnight, when the Fort Worth Independent School District in Texas announced it was closing its 140 schools, affecting about 80,000 students. On April 30, 62 schools in Huntsville, Ala., and Madison, Ala., closed, affecting 31,000 students, and state officials suspended high school sports at least through May 4.

Separately on April 29, a top official from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention raised the urgency of the government’s advice to schools.

At a House hearing, Dr. Anne Schuchat said the recommendation that schools consider closing if they have a confirmed case should be a notch stronger now. “At this point, we do think it’s very prudent to close schools when a case has been confirmed or is highly suspect,” Schuchat told the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Preparation by schools is crucial, because children every year play a major role in spreading influenza, and experts have said that would be no different during a pandemic. The nation’s pandemic preparation plans assume child infection rates approaching about 40 percent.

In a worldwide epidemic–which the swine flu outbreak is not–government planning documents say schools could be closed for up to 12 weeks.

The consequences of having kids at home reach far beyond school walls.

President Barack Obama on April 28 said parents everywhere should start preparing for the possibility that their kids might be sent home.

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Advice for schools on swine flu

President Barack Obama on April 29 said schools should close temporarily if any students have confirmed or suspected cases of swine flu. He was reiterating guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Education Department. Here are their recommendations for schools:

CLOSING

Schools and child care centers should close if they have a confirmed case of swine flu or a suspected case that is linked to a confirmed case. All school-related gatherings should be canceled, and parents and students should avoid gatherings outside of school as well.

Decisions about closing other facilities nearby should be left to local authorities. Big gatherings linked to schools or other places where swine flu cases have been confirmed should be canceled.

REOPENING

Schools and child care centers should consult with local and state health departments. They may consider reopening if no additional confirmed or suspected cases are found within seven days.

NOTIFICATION

Schools should inform students, parents, and staff about the symptoms, which can include cough, sore throat, body aches, headaches, and fever.

They should stress preventive measures, such as washing hands frequently and covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing.

Students with flu-like symptoms should be referred to a health care provider. Experts say there is no need to single out students who have recently traveled to Mexico; they should only be asked to stay home if they have flu symptoms.

ISOLATION

Those who have the flu should stay home for seven days after the onset of the illness. But other so-called "social distancing" measures are not recommended.

QUESTIONS

The Education Department has created an e-mail address, osdfs.safeschl@ed.gov, for education leaders and school staff to ask questions and report any closings because of swine flu.

Links:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

U.S. Department of Education

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Colleges are checking out applicants’ social networking posts

A new report indicates that colleges’ admission or scholarship decisions are being influenced by what they find about applicants online, reports the Los Angeles Times. According to a report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, about a quarter of U.S. colleges reported doing some research about applicants on social networking sites or through internet search engines. The study did not specify which schools acknowledged the practice or how often scholarships or enrollment offers might be nixed because of online postings. But David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the counselors group, said the moral is clear: "Don’t post anything that you don’t want your mother or father or college admission officer to see," he said. Colleges’ use of such internet sites raises ethical issues that need further study, including regarding whether online postings are genuine, Hawkins added. The report, which also looked at colleges’ use of the internet to recruit students, was written by Nora Ganim Barnes, director of the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. She said some colleges turn to the social web sites because "no school wants to give a prestigious scholarship to someone standing on a beer keg and wearing a lampshade…"

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Georgia schools scamper to join legions on Twitter

Twitter, the latest rage in free social networking, is being used by celebrities, CEOs, soccer moms, and now even tech-savvy school districts to keep the public informed about important, and not so important, daily events, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. From the banal to the braggadocios, "tweets" about student achievement, homework, school plays, and school boards in Georgia and across the nation are being sent to cell phones like breaking news bulletins interrupting network programming. The headlines, up to 140 characters, are shared with "followers"–mostly parents and educators–who sign up to wade through messages. "It’s a very cost-effective way to communicate directly to people who basically want to get the content," said Dana Tofig, Georgia Department of Education spokesman, who is leading the state public school tap into Twitter. "We can throw pictures up … [and link to] press releases and recordings. I think it’s a great tool in the toolbox." The state DOE on April 29 had 65 followers of its breaking "news" tweets–about 25 more than last week. Forsyth County Schools, which debuted as the first metro Atlanta public school on Twitter in March, has 304 followers…

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NCAA football coaches employ Twitter as new recruiting tool

Twitter.com has grown by 1,382 percent from February 2008 to February 2009, resulting in an increase of about 6.56 million new unique visitors during that time frame. Now several athletic departments are catching onto the trend, using the platform to update fans and reach out to recruits, reports the Daily Reveille. LSU football coach Les Miles congratulated top-three NFL draft pick Tyson Jackson, wished former LSU wide receiver Demetrius Byrd a speedy recovery after his car accident, and bragged about LSU’s performance in the annual spring football game–all during a five-day span using his new Twitter account. USC coach Pete Carroll, Georgia coach Mark Richt, and Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin are among other coaches who frequent their Twitter accounts. Meanwhile, college athletic programs realize they need to be careful to uphold NCAA recruiting rules. The NCAA board of directors approved a ban in April 2007 that disallows coaches to text message recruits. But users who subscribe to someone’s Twitter account can have that person’s messages sent to their mobile device. "As long as the coaches are not using Twitter to contact individual prospective student-athletes and are abiding by other recruiting rules, … there is not an issue with them using Twitter," NCAA associate director for public and media relations Cameron Schuh said…

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Talk to kids about sexting, Burlington officials say

If your child has a cell phone, then it’s time for the "talk" — that is, the talk about the dangers of sexting. That was the message that the county prosecutor, a police lieutenant, and the Burlington, Vt., school board chairman sent to parents April 29 during a panel discussion at Burlington High School on the growing problem of sexting, a national trend in which teens exchange explicit photos and text messages via cell phones, reports the Burlington Free Press. Even if a 15-year-old consents to send nude photos of herself to her boyfriend via cell phone, it’s potentially a violation of child pornography laws for both, said Thomas J. Donovan, Chittenden County State’s Attorney. He urged parents to talk to their children about the legal and ethical aspects of sexting and help them understand that digital images taken and exchanged impulsively can have a lasting impact on their criminal record and prospects for college and employment. Donovan, a graduate of Burlington High, told the small group gathered in the school cafeteria that he made mistakes when he was "young and stupid" and was given many second chances. Things are different now, though, because teens who make their mistakes in digital photographs and internet postings could be haunted by them for a long time in cyberspace, he said…

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India buys 250,000 low-cost laptops from OLPC

India has purchased 250,000 XO laptops from the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child project, a move that boosts the initiative and could help the deflating effort get back on its feet, Ars Technica reports. The machines will be distributed to students throughout the country. India’s decision to embrace OLPC is a bit unexpected in light of the country’s past antagonism toward the project. OLPC is a nonprofit organization that builds low-cost education laptops to sell in bulk to governments of developing countries. The project, first unveiled in 2005, has faced many challenges and has been forced to significantly cut staff and reduce the scope of its vision. Despite these setbacks, the program is still marching on and continuing to sell units as it works on an updated model and an innovative next-generation version…

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More books coming to students with disabilities

Students with disabilities often wait weeks or months for their textbooks to be specially formatted, but now a new higher-education partnership could make these books more widely available to students by scanning books and expanding an online library.

Nonprofit company Bookshare announced April 29 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., that 11 colleges and universities would contribute thousands of books to students and reduce the duplication and proofreading costs of campuses that must make reading material available to students who are blind, have low vision, or are unable to turn pages.

Read the full story at eCampus News

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More books coming to students with disabilities

Students with disabilities often wait weeks or months for their textbooks to be specially formatted, but now a new higher-education partnership could make these books more widely available to students by scanning books and expanding an online library.

Nonprofit company Bookshare announced April 29 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., that 11 colleges and universities would contribute thousands of books to students and reduce the duplication and proofreading costs of campuses that must make reading material available to students who are blind, have low vision, or are unable to turn pages.

Bookshare has steadily expanded reading material for learners with disabilities after receiving a $32.5 million, five-year grant from the Department of Education in 2007. Despite the federal funding, college students with disabilities continue to wait midway through a semester before they get textbooks and reading material they can read.

Scanning, adjusting, and proofreading the written works takes many colleges several weeks. By teaming up with 11 universities–including Arizona State University, Texas A&M University, and the University of California at Berkeley–more books will be scanned, placed into the Bookshare library, and be ready for distribution.

"This whole issue has been sort of roiling for years," said Jim Fruchterman, CEO of Benetech, the nonprofit organization that operates Bookshare, which was launched seven years ago. "The whole idea is that if one school has put the energy in, let’s make sure all schools can take benefit from that. … Working closely with U.S. colleges and universities, we can demonstrate the power of pooling our resources to benefit students with qualified disabilities who need timely access to accessible books."

Bookshare, which has 50,000 student members, has made more than 46,000 books available for students with disabilities and will continue to produce 1,000 books a month, Fruchterman said. The company once scanned 200 books every month.

Fruchterman said bolstering accessibility to students with low vision, for example, has gained attention from higher-education officials in recent years. Fruchterman pointed out that scanning books under the Bookshare University Partnership was made possible by a U.S. copyright-law exemption–called the Chafee Amendment–that makes it legal for books to be copied for people who can prove they have a print disability.

"I think it’s become much better understood that serving students with disabilities is a requirement to … complying with civil rights," he said. "It’s pretty established that schools have this obligation."

Jim Marks, president-elect of the Association of Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) and the director of disabilities services for the University of Montana at Mazula, said the university-partnership program would eliminate the costly redundancy of scanning books and customizing them for students with disabilities. Scanning and proofreading a single book can cost as much as $1,000, according to recent statistics.

"We have to provide information to students with disabilities just as quickly as to other students, and that’s a pretty high bar," said Marks, who is blind and has used scanned literature from Bookshare since the nonprofit was launched in 2002. "It’s kind of a shame that we have to provide access to the same book over and over again at different institutions. That’s why I think this concept will be appealing."

Ashley Seymour, a junior at the University of Michigan-Flint who has been blind since birth, said the ever-growing Bookshare library will simplify her search for new reading material.

"I just download my books, convert [them] to MP3 files for my iPod, and go to class," said Seymour, a health care major.

Books for persons with disabilities are not yet ubiquitous, higher-education officials said, but Bookshare’s appeal to universities and colleges could attract other institutions where students are disadvantaged because of delays in book scanning.

"This is not going to be the answer," Marks said, "but it will be an answer."

Links:

Bookshare

eSchool News: "Bookshare.org offers 17,000 royalty-free texts" (May 2004)

Association of Higher Education and Disability

University of Montana

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Obama warns of more school closings

As worries of a possible pandemic intensified April 29 amid reports of the first death in the United States from swine flu, President Obama said school leaders should consider closing their schools temporarily if they think any of their students might be infected–and he urged parents to prepare for this contingency as well.

Speaking at the White House, Obama said he wants Americans to know the government is doing “whatever is necessary” to contain the emerging health threat, which was blamed for a U.S. death for the first time on April 29.

Flu experts have said any school closings that occur because of an outbreak of swine flu might not last for just a day or two–a shutdown probably would have to last a month or longer to be effective.

Obama said his thoughts and prayers were with the family of the 23-month-old Mexican child who traveled to Texas seeking treatment and who became the nation’s first reported swine flu death. The president’s remarks came at an event welcoming Sen. Arlen Specter to the Democratic Party, and hours before Obama’s televised news conference set for later that evening.

“This is obviously a serious situation,” Obama said, and one that “we are closely and continuously monitoring.” He urged local authorities to be vigilant in reporting any suspected flu cases.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama, who has been receiving swine flu briefings several times a day, was updated late on April 28. The president decided he needed to underscore that the situation was growing more serious, leading to his remarks at the day’s event, Gibbs said.

Emphasizing a recommendation made earlier this week by federal health officials, Obama said authorities at schools with confirmed or suspected cases of swine flu “should strongly consider temporarily closing so that we can be as safe as possible.”

He advised parents to be ready for such disruptions.

“If the situation becomes more serious and we have to take more extensive steps, then parents should also think about contingencies if schools in their areas do temporarily shut down, figuring out and planning what their child care situation would be,” Obama advised.

Just moving children from schools to day care centers in infected areas “is not a good solution,” he said.

Texas education officials have postponed all public high school athletic and academic competitions until May 11 because of the swine flu outbreak.

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