Schools are bracing for what could be a nasty flu season -- and for principals and educators, that may mean making tricky decisions about when to close their doors.
The challenge is to balance preventing the spread of the deadly swine flu virus with the potential for causing massive disruptions for families and students.
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"How do you continue learning for students who are healthy?" asked Cindy Ball, director of community relations for Rockdale County Public Schools in Georgia, where schools are already back in session. "If you have to close the school, how do you continue learning?
"We don't have any magical answers," Ball said.
To help educators face the upcoming season, the government plans to release guidelines as early as Friday to help school districts manage potential closings.
But while federal officials can give advice, they know decisions need to be made locally.
"If we find that we're in a position where we need to close the schools, we'll have that discussion with our local board and our local community, and do what's right for our students," Ball said.
"Schools' nurses in our county have taken an active role along with our county public health department, and we've gone out to provide school-based flu clinics," Sheri Coburn, director of comprehensive health programs at the San Joaquin County Office of Education in California, said today.
Today, John Barry, author of "The Great Influenza," said guidance from the government makes sense.
"Keeping kids at home for days at a time, much less weeks, is almost impossible," he said. "When you add to that the burden imposed on working parents, and getting meals to poor students who depend on school for them, only in extreme circumstances does closing schools make sense."
A decision to rethink the advice offered to schools comes in part to extensive closures last spring. In May, the administration urged schools to shut down to stop the spread, and hundreds did -- affecting half a million students. But within weeks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revised its lesson plan.
"Advice about school closings has changed as we have learned more about H1N1 influenza and also as the outbreak has progressed," Dr. William Schaffner, professor and chairman of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, said today.
"Now that the severity is akin to seasonal influenza, there is less need to close schools and less local support for such a policy," he added. "School closings produce hellacious disruptions."
Still, schools could face a daunting challenge as they prepare to reopen after summer break. Unsurprisingly, health officials last week announced that school children would be among those who take first priority for a swine flu vaccine. People who care for infants under six months of age, health care and EMS workers, pregnant women and anyone under the age of 64 with underlying medical conditions join children, teenagers and college students on that list.
Fifty percent of swine flu cases so far have been among people between the ages of 5 and 24, according to the latest numbers from the CDC.