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How US schools aim to handle swine flu

As several states begin receiving the swine flu vaccine, here is a Q-and-A on what parents can expect to happen at schools.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 6, 2009

Basic steps: Michelle Marfo of Alexandria, Va., shows her hand-washing skill to Gov. Tim Kaine at a school awareness event.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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More than 700 schools shut their doors last spring, as the H1N1 flu virus hit the United States. Uncertainty over the severity of the disease and fears of a pandemic were widespread.

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This fall, school boards plan to close only as a last resort, and they're instead focusing on prevention, containment, and common sense. The bottom line, they say, is that the illness has not been particularly severe, and there is no reason for alarm.

Still, rumors and fears are circulating both about potential dangers in a swine flu outbreak and about an overly vigilant government response that might trample individuals' rights.

Here's a breakdown of what parents can expect at schools this fall.

What preparations are schools making?

Schools are emphasizing the importance of hand-washing, asking parents to keep children home until they have had no symptoms for at least a day, and designating a room to isolate children exhibiting symptoms until parents take them home.

Many schools are installing hand sanitizers in every classroom and posting signs reminding students and staff about hygiene.

In Chicago, where last spring two schools shut down for at least a week, the district is monitoring patterns of absences and tracking them in a database that is provided daily to the city health department. The events last spring "made us put in place a response plan that we can now use for any emergency," says Monique Bond, spokeswoman for Chicago Public Schools. "That was the good thing that came out of this."

In many places, schools are making a big effort to ensure that students who need to stay home are kept abreast of what's going on in the classroom. In New York City, for example, homework and course work are being distributed in neighborhood centers for parents to pick up, says Brenda Greene, director of school health programs for the National School Boards Association (NSBA).

Districts plan to shut a school down only as a last resort, if too many students and staff become absent for the school to function. "It's best when children stay learning," says Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the US Department of Education. "Last spring, we knew less than we know now, so out of an abundance of caution, people thought it better to close some schools down," he adds. But now, "if you can keep a majority of the building safe and healthy, you should stay open."

What if conditions worsen?

Most schools and health officials are working under the assumption that swine flu is not a particular cause for concern among healthy individuals.

But if assumptions were to change, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has listed more-extreme measures that districts could consider. These include: taking students' temperatures at the door, increasing the physical distance between students in the classroom, and canceling large gatherings.

Will vaccinations be mandatory?