Although this particular flu virus is new, the matter of school closings is not. Every winter, regular flu outbreaks prompt a relatively small number of schools to close for a few days because of high absenteeism among students or staff.
In addition to new guidance for when to close, the CDC and Education Department said this week they have set up a new monitoring system to track school closures across the country.
The new guidelines also recommend schools have plans in place to deal with possible infection. For instance, people with flu-like illness should be sent to a room away from other people until they can be sent home. And schools should have contingency plans to fill important positions such as school nurses.
If the H1N1 flu virus causes higher rates of severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths, school officials could add to or intensify their responses, the guidelines say. Under these conditions, the guidelines advise parents to check their children every morning for illness and keep their children home if they have a fever.
In addition, schools could begin actively screening students upon arrival and send ill students home immediately. If one family member is ill, students should stay home for five days from the day the illness develops, the guidelines say.
“Influenza can be unpredictable, so preparation and planning are key,” said Dr. Frieden. “We can’t stop the tide of flu, but we can reduce the number of people who become very ill by preparing well and acting effectively.”
Still up in the air is whether schools will be turned into vaccine clinics, though Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has said that seems logical. “We’re seeing schools as potential partners,” she said at the forum with Duncan.
Children are on the priority list for the first doses of swine flu vaccine, but because of the time needed for testing and manufacturing, inoculations can’t begin until school has been in session for more than a month; the government is aiming for Oct. 15. Many questions remain, including whether people will need one shot or two for protection. That’s in addition to the regular winter flu vaccine that is also recommended for children.
States and school districts should be preparing for the possibility of mass vaccinations, federal officials have said.
They also should make plans to keep kids learning when schools do close, Duncan said, such as by setting up online-learning contingency plans.
New federal flu guidelines for schools
eSN Educator Resource Center: Preparing for a Pandemic