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.

The move suspends the baseball and softball seasons and eliminates the regional track championships that were to start May 1, said Charles Breithaupt, executive director of the University Interscholastic League. He said league officials acted on the recommendation of public health officials.

“The health and safety of our student activity participants is of the utmost importance,” Breithaupt said. “Taking every possible precaution to prevent the further spreading of this disease is an important contribution to the welfare of our great state, and altering the schedule of our events is a way to keep our participants safe.”

State education officials say 53,000 Texas students are out of school owing to concern over the virus, and dozens of schools were closed to be sanitized.

Swine flu outbreaks had spread to at least 10 states as of April 29, reported the Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization said the outbreak is moving closer to becoming a full-scale pandemic.

Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the organization’s top flu expert, told reporters in Geneva that the latest developments are moving the agency closer to raising its pandemic alert to phase 5, indicating widespread human-to-human transmission. That’s just one step below level 6, a full-fledged pandemic.

In Washington, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was questioned closely by senators about whether the U.S. should close its border with Mexico, where the outbreak apparently began and the casualties have been the greatest. She repeated the administration’s position that questioning of people at borders and ports of entry was sufficient for now and said closing borders “has not been merited by the facts.”

Dr. Richard Besser, the acting chief of the Centers for Disease Control, said in Atlanta that there are confirmed cases now in 10 states, with 51 in New York, 14 in California, and 16 in Texas. Two cases have been confirmed in Kansas, Massachusetts, and Michigan, while single cases have been reported in Arizona, Indiana, Nevada, and Ohio.

If more schools were to close as a result of the virus, mass-notification technology would work “tremendously well” to help keep parents informed, said Jim Hanna, superintendent of Indiana’s Rossville Consolidated School District, which serves 1,038 students. Hanna recently used a system called SchoolReach to communicate information about a missing student to the district’s parents. The student was found, safe, almost immediately after the alert went out.

The district distributed a paper newsletter to parents April 29, informing them of Indiana’s one confirmed case of swine flu and letting them know that district officials are continuing to monitor county, state, and national developments. That newsletter also was available in PDF format on the district’s web site.

If more schools do close, a mass-notification system not only would inform parents and students of closure details, but also could be used for educational purposes if schools remain closed for an extended period of time.

“We could use the system to notify students of [class-related] information that’s on our web site, if a teacher has uploaded assignment information,” Hanna said, adding that teachers would have to keep assignment information current and that eMail correspondence also might help.

Hanna said his district will continue to use its mass-notification system to keep parents updated on swine flu-related news.

John A. Challenger, chief executive of global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray, and Christmas Inc., told the Fort Wayne, Ind., journalgazette.net that companies might be able to control the potential damage to their business from a pandemic by changing how they operate. These changes could include implementing company-wide telecommuting, increased video conferencing, social distancing, and strict personal hygiene policies.

Increased use of telecommuting and video conferencing could extend to schools as well, letting students log onto computers and attend virtual classes if schools are closed and helping administrators stay in touch with school personnel.

Obama said the federal government is “prepared to do whatever is necessary to control the impact of this virus.” He noted his request for $1.5 billion in emergency funding to ensure adequate supplies of vaccines.

And he advised individuals to take their own precautions: washing hands, staying home if they are sick, and keeping sick kids home.

The Centers for Disease Control has recommended that schools strongly consider dismissing students when there is a confirmed or suspected case.

On April 28, health officials closed a school in Sacramento, Calif., and a school in New York City.

Said Gibbs, “The test results coming back on the [first U.S. fatality from swine flu] are a very, very painful reminder of what we have to do to remain safe.”

Links:

Centers for Disease Prevention and Control

Rossville Consolidated School District

SchoolReach

eSN’s full coverage of swine flu and its repercussions for schools

SAFE Center Resources: Pandemics

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Mass Notification Systems resource center. Terrorism. Severe weather. Violent crimes. Water main breaks. Gas leaks. All of these scenarios can occur instantly. The question is, will your schools be prepared to communicate urgent news before it’s too late? Go to: Mass Notification Systems


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