CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Schools should try to stay open when swine flu hits while working to limit its spread. That’s the advice West Virginia’s chief health officer, Dr. Cathy Slemp, gave the West Virginia Board of Education Thursday during its regular meeting in Charleston.
Slemp, who based her recommendations on guidelines issued by The Centers for Disease Control, recommends county school officials work in collaboration with local health officials to determine if and when schools should close to curtail the spread of the flu virus, including H1N1, commonly called swine flu as well as the seasonal flu.
“The decision to close schools is not a black and white issue,” Slemp said. “These are decisions that will vary from community to community. Local health officials in collaboration with local education officials are constantly assessing the risks and benefits.”
In making decisions to close, Slemp said local health and school officials consider such things as child safety, child nutrition and the disruption of the learning process. Schools could opt to close if there is excessive absenteeism among students or staff, if a large number of kids are visiting the school health office or being sent home during the day with flu-like symptoms, or for other reasons that affect the school’s ability to function.
“Concern about swine flu is understandable,” said state Superintendent of Schools Steve Paine. “Parents and educators alike are worried about the impact of the H1N1 flu on our families and our communities. Our first concern is that we keep our children and our families as safe as possible. But we also need to use common sense to make sure our children’s educations are disrupted as little as possible.”
Slemp emphasized closing schools, particularly in larger, more urban areas, often has little effect on curtailing the spread of the flu virus, especially when the disease is already widespread in the community. Even when schools do close, students often still congregate in other public areas, such as shopping malls, theaters and sporting events where the disease also can spread.
Instead of across-the-board closure, Slemp recommends schools take precautionary steps, including
- Staying home when sick and remaining there until 24 hours after any fever is gone.
- Separating ill students and staff.
- Washing hands and observing appropriate cough/sneeze etiquette.
- Routine cleaning.
- Early treatment of at-risk students and staff.
“We now have several thousand cases of swine flu in the state and three deaths. That’s tragic, but it is a small percentage of all cases,” Slemp said. “What’s different from the seasonal flu is that the H1N1 virus is impacting the younger population more, particularly those under 25. The vast majority of people do just fine at home with home-based care. However, any time serious symptoms develop or if your child is very sick, you need to see your health care provider.”
Paine also emphasized that schools have taken extra precautions to sanitize facilities. He also encouraged county school officials to consider leniency with attendance and exam policies so that students do not come to school when they should be at home.
“The health and safety of kids should take precedence over testing as we deal with this outbreak,” Paine said. “We want to err on the side of parents and kids so that we allow them a sense of freedom to get better without undue stress.”
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