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.