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Government Issues Advice for Schools on Swine Flu

by The Kid's Doctor Staff

The U.S. government is advising schools they don’t need to close their doors this fall if a few students come down with the H1N1 influenza virus (swine flu). Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that only schools with high numbers of students contracting the new flu should consider closing to stem the outbreak.

The decision rests with local school officials, but they are looking to the federal government for advice about the new flu strain that has caused a global epidemic.

Last spring, the virus forced more than 700 schools in half the states to temporarily close their doors. The new flu is expected to hit schools again this fall. But the Obama administration is hoping to minimize closings and disruptions they cause for families.

“We hope no schools have to close, but realistically, some schools will close this fall,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.

“I’m dealing first and foremost as a parent,” Duncan said. “I want to keep my children safe and keep them learning.” He said officials are asking parents to “use common sense” and encourage their children to vigorously wash their hands several times a day and take other safety precautions.

“We want to provide as much facts as we can” to local officials, he said. “Basically, this will be a tiered response. If there’s a handful of children at a school who might be sick, we want the parents to keep them home. If the numbers escalate dramatically, then we might have to close the schools.”

Duncan said officials anticipate the vaccine will be available by mid-October and that they want schools to be principal sites for getting the shots.

In addition to new guidance for when to close, the CDC and Education Department said they have set up a new monitoring system to track school closures across the country.

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.

Children are on the priority list for the first doses of swine flu vaccine, but because of 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 is 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.

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