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.

tags

Advice for schools on swine flu

President Barack Obama on April 29 said schools should close temporarily if any students have confirmed or suspected cases of swine flu. He was reiterating guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Education Department. Here are their recommendations for schools:

CLOSING

Schools and child care centers should close if they have a confirmed case of swine flu or a suspected case that is linked to a confirmed case. All school-related gatherings should be canceled, and parents and students should avoid gatherings outside of school as well.

Decisions about closing other facilities nearby should be left to local authorities. Big gatherings linked to schools or other places where swine flu cases have been confirmed should be canceled.

REOPENING

Schools and child care centers should consult with local and state health departments. They may consider reopening if no additional confirmed or suspected cases are found within seven days.

NOTIFICATION

Schools should inform students, parents, and staff about the symptoms, which can include cough, sore throat, body aches, headaches, and fever.

They should stress preventive measures, such as washing hands frequently and covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing.

Students with flu-like symptoms should be referred to a health care provider. Experts say there is no need to single out students who have recently traveled to Mexico; they should only be asked to stay home if they have flu symptoms.

ISOLATION

Those who have the flu should stay home for seven days after the onset of the illness. But other so-called "social distancing" measures are not recommended.

QUESTIONS

The Education Department has created an e-mail address, osdfs.safeschl@ed.gov, for education leaders and school staff to ask questions and report any closings because of swine flu.

Links:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

U.S. Department of Education

tags

Georgia schools scamper to join legions on Twitter

Twitter, the latest rage in free social networking, is being used by celebrities, CEOs, soccer moms, and now even tech-savvy school districts to keep the public informed about important, and not so important, daily events, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. From the banal to the braggadocios, "tweets" about student achievement, homework, school plays, and school boards in Georgia and across the nation are being sent to cell phones like breaking news bulletins interrupting network programming. The headlines, up to 140 characters, are shared with "followers"–mostly parents and educators–who sign up to wade through messages. "It’s a very cost-effective way to communicate directly to people who basically want to get the content," said Dana Tofig, Georgia Department of Education spokesman, who is leading the state public school tap into Twitter. "We can throw pictures up … [and link to] press releases and recordings. I think it’s a great tool in the toolbox." The state DOE on April 29 had 65 followers of its breaking "news" tweets–about 25 more than last week. Forsyth County Schools, which debuted as the first metro Atlanta public school on Twitter in March, has 304 followers…

Click here for the full story

tags

Talk to kids about sexting, Burlington officials say

If your child has a cell phone, then it’s time for the "talk" — that is, the talk about the dangers of sexting. That was the message that the county prosecutor, a police lieutenant, and the Burlington, Vt., school board chairman sent to parents April 29 during a panel discussion at Burlington High School on the growing problem of sexting, a national trend in which teens exchange explicit photos and text messages via cell phones, reports the Burlington Free Press. Even if a 15-year-old consents to send nude photos of herself to her boyfriend via cell phone, it’s potentially a violation of child pornography laws for both, said Thomas J. Donovan, Chittenden County State’s Attorney. He urged parents to talk to their children about the legal and ethical aspects of sexting and help them understand that digital images taken and exchanged impulsively can have a lasting impact on their criminal record and prospects for college and employment. Donovan, a graduate of Burlington High, told the small group gathered in the school cafeteria that he made mistakes when he was "young and stupid" and was given many second chances. Things are different now, though, because teens who make their mistakes in digital photographs and internet postings could be haunted by them for a long time in cyberspace, he said…

Click here for the full story

tags

India buys 250,000 low-cost laptops from OLPC

India has purchased 250,000 XO laptops from the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child project, a move that boosts the initiative and could help the deflating effort get back on its feet, Ars Technica reports. The machines will be distributed to students throughout the country. India’s decision to embrace OLPC is a bit unexpected in light of the country’s past antagonism toward the project. OLPC is a nonprofit organization that builds low-cost education laptops to sell in bulk to governments of developing countries. The project, first unveiled in 2005, has faced many challenges and has been forced to significantly cut staff and reduce the scope of its vision. Despite these setbacks, the program is still marching on and continuing to sell units as it works on an updated model and an innovative next-generation version…

Click here for the full story

tags

More books coming to students with disabilities

Students with disabilities often wait weeks or months for their textbooks to be specially formatted, but now a new higher-education partnership could make these books more widely available to students by scanning books and expanding an online library.

Nonprofit company Bookshare announced April 29 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., that 11 colleges and universities would contribute thousands of books to students and reduce the duplication and proofreading costs of campuses that must make reading material available to students who are blind, have low vision, or are unable to turn pages.

Read the full story at eCampus News

tags

More books coming to students with disabilities

Students with disabilities often wait weeks or months for their textbooks to be specially formatted, but now a new higher-education partnership could make these books more widely available to students by scanning books and expanding an online library.

Nonprofit company Bookshare announced April 29 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., that 11 colleges and universities would contribute thousands of books to students and reduce the duplication and proofreading costs of campuses that must make reading material available to students who are blind, have low vision, or are unable to turn pages.

Bookshare has steadily expanded reading material for learners with disabilities after receiving a $32.5 million, five-year grant from the Department of Education in 2007. Despite the federal funding, college students with disabilities continue to wait midway through a semester before they get textbooks and reading material they can read.

Scanning, adjusting, and proofreading the written works takes many colleges several weeks. By teaming up with 11 universities–including Arizona State University, Texas A&M University, and the University of California at Berkeley–more books will be scanned, placed into the Bookshare library, and be ready for distribution.

"This whole issue has been sort of roiling for years," said Jim Fruchterman, CEO of Benetech, the nonprofit organization that operates Bookshare, which was launched seven years ago. "The whole idea is that if one school has put the energy in, let’s make sure all schools can take benefit from that. … Working closely with U.S. colleges and universities, we can demonstrate the power of pooling our resources to benefit students with qualified disabilities who need timely access to accessible books."

Bookshare, which has 50,000 student members, has made more than 46,000 books available for students with disabilities and will continue to produce 1,000 books a month, Fruchterman said. The company once scanned 200 books every month.

Fruchterman said bolstering accessibility to students with low vision, for example, has gained attention from higher-education officials in recent years. Fruchterman pointed out that scanning books under the Bookshare University Partnership was made possible by a U.S. copyright-law exemption–called the Chafee Amendment–that makes it legal for books to be copied for people who can prove they have a print disability.

"I think it’s become much better understood that serving students with disabilities is a requirement to … complying with civil rights," he said. "It’s pretty established that schools have this obligation."

Jim Marks, president-elect of the Association of Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) and the director of disabilities services for the University of Montana at Mazula, said the university-partnership program would eliminate the costly redundancy of scanning books and customizing them for students with disabilities. Scanning and proofreading a single book can cost as much as $1,000, according to recent statistics.

"We have to provide information to students with disabilities just as quickly as to other students, and that’s a pretty high bar," said Marks, who is blind and has used scanned literature from Bookshare since the nonprofit was launched in 2002. "It’s kind of a shame that we have to provide access to the same book over and over again at different institutions. That’s why I think this concept will be appealing."

Ashley Seymour, a junior at the University of Michigan-Flint who has been blind since birth, said the ever-growing Bookshare library will simplify her search for new reading material.

"I just download my books, convert [them] to MP3 files for my iPod, and go to class," said Seymour, a health care major.

Books for persons with disabilities are not yet ubiquitous, higher-education officials said, but Bookshare’s appeal to universities and colleges could attract other institutions where students are disadvantaged because of delays in book scanning.

"This is not going to be the answer," Marks said, "but it will be an answer."

Links:

Bookshare

eSchool News: "Bookshare.org offers 17,000 royalty-free texts" (May 2004)

Association of Higher Education and Disability

University of Montana

tags

Obama warns of more school closings

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.

tags

Rare and ancient written works go online

National libraries from more than a dozen countries, in coordination with the United Nations’ education agency, put some of humanity’s earliest written works online April 21 with their launch of the World Digital Library, a web site in seven languages — English, Arabic, Chinese, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian — that leads readers through a trove of rare finds. Among these are a 1562 map of the New World; the only known copy of the first book published in the Philippines, in Spanish and Tagalog; an 11th-century Serbian manuscript; and the oracle bones — pieces of bone or tortoise shell heated and cracked and inscribed that are among the earliest known signs of Chinese writings. The online archive also contains early photographs, films, and audio tracks. Aimed at researchers, educators, and students worldwide, the site provides page-by-page viewing of the original works, scanned in by the national libraries that took part in the project, often with multilingual narration by curators. http://www.wdl.org

tags

Hundreds sick at NYC school hit by virus

The global swine flu outbreak worsened April 28 as authorities said hundreds of students at a New York school have fallen ill and federal officials confirmed the first U.S. death from the virus.

Cuba also suspended flights to and from Mexico, becoming the first country to impose a travel ban to the epicenter of the epidemic. Confirmed cases of swine flu were reported for the first time as far away as New Zealand and Israel, joining the United States, Canada, Britain, Spain, and Germany.

Swine flu is believed to have killed more than 150 people in Mexico, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the U.S. had 68 confirmed cases in five states as of press time, with 45 in New York, one in Ohio, one in Indiana, two in Kansas, six in Texas, and 13 in California.

The first U.S. death from swine flu has been confirmed–a 23-month-old child in Texas–amid increasing global anxiety over a health menace that authorities around the world are struggling to contain.

"I fully expect we will see [more] deaths from this infection," said Richard Besser, acting director of the CDC.

That was echoed by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

"It is very likely that we will see more serious presentations of illness and some deaths as we go through this flu cycle," she said.

President Barack Obama asked Congress for $1.5 billion in emergency funds to fight the illness.

In New York, there were growing signs that the virus was moving beyond St. Francis Preparatory school, where sick students started lining up last week at the nurse’s office. The outbreak came just days after a group of students returned from spring break in Cancun.

At the 2,700-student school, the largest Roman Catholic high school in the nation, "many hundreds of students were ill with symptoms that are most likely swine flu," said Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden. The cases haven’t been confirmed.

Twelve teachers reported flu-like symptoms as well, said the principal, Brother Leonard Conway.

A nearby public school for special education students was shut down after more than 80 students called in sick. Frieden said that some of the students have siblings at St. Francis.

"It is here and it is spreading," Frieden said.

Some of the New York students who tested positive for swine flu after a trip to Mexico passed it on to others who had not traveled–a significant fact because it suggests the strain suspected in dozens of deaths in Mexico can also spread through communities in other countries, said Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general of the World Health Organization.

"There is definitely the possibility that this virus can establish that kind of community-wide outbreak capacity in multiple countries, and it’s something we’re looking for very closely," Fukuda said. So-called "community" transmissions are a key test for gauging whether the spread of the virus has reached pandemic proportions.

Fukuda warned, however, against jumping to the conclusion that the virus has become firmly established in the United States.

Still, U.S. officials stressed there was no need for panic and noted that flu outbreaks are quite common every year. The CDC estimates about 36,000 people in the U.S. died of flu-related causes each year, on average, in the 1990s.

The increase in cases was not surprising. For days, CDC officials said they expected to see more confirmed cases–and more severe illnesses. Health officials nationwide stepped up efforts to look for symptoms, especially among people who had traveled to Mexico.

Scientists hope to have a key ingredient for a vaccine ready in early May, but it still will take a few months before any shots are available for the first required safety testing. Using samples of the flu taken from people who fell ill in Mexico and the U.S., scientists are engineering a strain that could trigger the immune system without causing illness.

"We’re about a third of the way" to that goal, said Dr. Ruben Donis of the CDC.

In Mexico City, authorities opened the national naval hospital to civilians to deal with the still-mounting wave of suspected swine flu cases, and prospective patients crowded the waiting rooms and reception areas for a chance to get in.

With at least 152 suspected swine flu deaths in Mexico, complaints were heard throughout the capital of 20 million that the supply of surgical masks was running out.

The economic toll also spread. Officials said Mexico City is losing $57 million a day amid a shutdown that includes schools, state-run theaters, and other public places. The government said it was closing all of Mexico’s famed archaeological sites until further notice.

Cuba announced a 48-hour ban on flights to and from Mexico, except in "exceptional cases." The last flight from Mexico touched down in Havana around 4 p.m., then returned to Mexico City with passengers before the two-day suspension officially began.

The U.S. stepped up checks of people entering the country and warned Americans to avoid nonessential travel to Mexico. Canada, Israel, and France issued similar travel advisories.

For all the government intervention, health officials suggested that efforts to contain the flu strain might prove ineffective. Around the world, officials hoped the outbreak would not turn into a full-fledged pandemic, an epidemic that spreads across a wide geographical area.

"Border controls do not work. Travel restrictions do not work," said WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl, recalling the SARS epidemic earlier in the decade that killed 774 people, mostly in Asia, and slowed the global economy.

The pork industry was dealing with a public relations nightmare over the virus, which is a never-before-seen hybrid of human, swine, and bird influenza that is widely called swine flu.

Public health officials have said people cannot get sick from eating pork, but some countries, such as China, Russia, and Ukraine, have banned imports from Mexico and parts of the U.S.

U.S. officials said they might abandon the term "swine flu" for fear of confusing people into thinking they could catch it from eating pork.

"It’s killing our markets," said Francis Gilmore, 72, who runs a 600-hog operation in Perry, Iowa, outside Des Moines, and worries his small business could be ruined by the crisis. "Where they got the name, I just don’t know."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency to help California agencies coordinate efforts in response to the outbreak. He cautioned, however, that "there is no need for alarm."

In New York, the city called on the CDC for additional resources to investigate the outbreak at St. Francis Prep.

About 1,500 students replied to surveys sent out by the health department about the outbreak, helping the city get a better sense of how the virus is spreading. Some students have complained of sudden nausea; others dealt with high fever, sore throats, coughs, and aches.

Rachel Mele and her mother, Linda, were relieved when the 16-year-old’s fever broke April 28 for the first time in five days. It had been hovering around 101.

The family could finally breathe easy–a relief after a terrifying night April 23 in which Mele’s parents bundled her into the car and rushed her to the hospital when they realized she was having trouble breathing.

"I could barely even catch my breath. I’ve never felt a pain like that before," Mele said. "My throat, it was burning, like, it was the worst burning sensation I ever got before. I couldn’t even swallow. I couldn’t even let up air. I could barely breathe through my mouth."

Links:

SAFE Center Resources: Pandemics

What you need to know about swine flu

Universities mobilize against pandemic threat

U.S. government information on swine flu

tags