School Closures May Not Be Necessary When Swine Flu Strikes

FRIDAY, Aug. 7 (HealthDay News) -- The school closures that swept across the United States last spring during the emergence of the H1N1 swine flu needn't be repeated this fall, according to new guidelines issued Friday by federal health officials.

However, the same guidelines noted that everything could change if the outbreak suddenly turns severe.

"New guidance for schools from the [U.S.] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will help schools prepare and respond to the H1N1 flu as kids get ready for school in the upcoming days," Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said during a Friday morning news conference.

"Schools must have clear guidance about how to minimize the spread of H1N1," Janet Napolitano, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, added during the same news conference.

"The decisions to close schools is a local one," she said. "Once you close a school, as we saw last spring, that causes a very significant ripple effect, because children need to stay home [and] that means parents need to be thinking about their own plans."

"The guidance we are providing today will give school officials the tools they need to make informed decisions about how to decrease exposure to the flu while limiting the disruption of day-to-day learning in schools," Napolitano added.

"What we don't know is whether or when H1N1 will return," said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "It's quite possible that it will come back when schools reopen. It is also possible that it will not."

As far as school closings go, the new guidelines offer a "range of options." According to the CDC, more than 55 million students and 7 million staffers head to the nation's 130,000 schools each weekday during the school year. In essence, the recommendations balance the need to contain the spread of the H1N1 swine flu against the disruption to education and inconvenience to parents that school closures can bring.

Among the recommendations:

  • Students and school staff should exercise good flu hygiene, such as hand washing and covering noses and mouths with tissue when sneezing or coughing (use a shirt sleeve if tissue is unavailable).
  • If flu is suspected, the affected person should contact a health-care worker as soon as possible. People at high risk (due to pregnancy, or medical conditions such as asthma or diabetes) should take antiviral medication immediately to reduce risk of prolonged or dangerous illness.
  • Schools should have an action plan for flu outbreaks, including a room set aside for people suspected of coming down with flu, as they wait to be transported home. Schools should also have a contingency plan should important personnel, such as school nurses, fall ill.
  • The CDC recommends the use of surgical masks for ill students or staff and those caring for them.
  • The education of students who are ill at home with the flu should be continued, using phone calls, homework packets and Web-based learning.
  • Any ill student or staff member should stay home for an additional 24 hours after flu symptoms such as fever have ended, even if they are using antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu.
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