Closing schools may not stop flu from spreading

WASHINGTON – Closing schools won’t necessarily stop the spread of swine flu.

What about the younger sister in a private day care center? And how to keep teens who are sent home from getting together at the mall or at each other’s houses?

So far, only about 100 of the nation’s 132,000 schools have closed. But they include schools on both coasts and in the nation’s heartland, and more are likely to shut their doors in coming days. Texas officials just suspended all high school sports — smack in the middle of baseball season.

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

Local officials make the decisions on schools, after weighing conditions in their cities, towns and counties. But President Barack Obama says parents everywhere should start preparing for the possibility that their kids may be sent home.

That would raise a whole new set of questions.

“There is a large ripple effect,” acknowledged Kathleen Sebelius, Obama’s newly approved health secretary. “What happens to the parents? Where do those children go? Do you close the day care center if a younger sibling is there?”

So far, closings have affected fewer than 60,000 students out of a total of 56 million enrolled nationwide in K-12 education in public and private schools. Most of the closings are individual schools, not entire systems. Most are expected to be short-term, a week or so. Some of the children who got sick are already recovering.

If the outbreak turns into a killer flu, classes could still continue even if schools are shut.

If they’ve planned for it, teachers could give their lessons by Internet, television, radio, telephone, mail or through their community newspapers.

In Mexico, where the illnesses have been more severe, the government closed schools nationwide. In the U.S., authorities will deal with the problem from the ground up, not from the top down.

“It is the state and local role to plan what’s going to happen, as far as day to day or hour to hour,” said Brenda Greene, director of school health programs for the National School Boards Association.

If a flu case is confirmed at a school, local officials may just close down that school alone. Clusters of cases at different schools could prompt the closing of an entire system. Closings in many communities may lead to a statewide shutdown.

Closing schools is not to be taken lightly.

“It’s not just about the schools,” explained Kim Elliott, deputy director of Trust for America’s Health, an independent public health organization. “If a community is thinking about closing schools, they’re also probably thinking about closing day care centers. And children also depend on schools for a lot of services other than education, including lunch programs and after-school care.”