State officials review new H1N1 guidelines for schoolsby Lorna Benson, Minnesota Public Radio
Washington — The Minnesota Health Department is reviewing new H1N1 flu recommendations for schools issued Friday.
The revised guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discourage schools from closing quickly, unless they have students at high risk of flu complications or the virus suddenly becomes more severe.
Minnesota Department of Health officials want to make sure the changes will work for Minnesota schools.
"They are very well developed and thought out by people who are experts in public health and in medicine," said John Line Stine, Assistant Minnesota Health Commissioner. "We want to consider whether they need to be adapted for our school situation in Minnesota."
For example, the Department wants to talk with school officials here about the merits of screening students each day during a severe outbreak.
"We would want to talk with the school nurses in Minnesota about how that would work, whether that's a good idea," Stine said. "So that's sort of one of the unknowns at this point, is will that be a recommendation that we'll modify or in some way clarify for Minnesota schools."
Charlie Kyte, executive director for the Minnesota Association of School Administrators said he welcomes guidelines and that the adjustments make sense.
"We want the children back in school as soon as possible after they're done being contagious," Kyte said. "And as long as that contagion period ends about 24 hours after they've been sick, great, let's get them back to school."
The Health Department will discuss the recommendations with Minnesota school district administrators next week.
The advice on sick kids returning is a change from previous recommendations that people with the flu strain stay home for a week.
As the virus spread to students last spring, more than 700 schools in half the states temporarily closed 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.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano offered the advice on school closings, while the guidance on students returning came from Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Unlike regular seasonal flu, the H1N1 virus, also referred to as the swine flu, has not retreated during the hot and humid summer months and so far has infected more than 1 million Americans.
"We hope no schools have to close, but realistically, some schools will close this fall," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said this week during a forum with administration officials that was broadcast online.
"I'm dealing first and foremost as a parent," Duncan said Friday on a nationally broadcast news show. "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.
Students got an unexpected vacation last spring, but many parents scrambled to find child care.
School officials had been acting on advice from the CDC, which at first said schools should shut down for about two weeks if there were suspected cases of H1N1 flu.
Then the CDC changed course, saying schools did not need to close because the virus was milder than feared. Instead, parents were told to keep sick kids home for at least a week.
Duncan said at a flu summit last month that closing school should be "a last resort, not a first resort."
He said earlier this week that school districts should use common sense.
"If you have one child sick, that's one thing. If you have a whole host of children getting sick, that's another," Duncan said.
While 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.
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 H1N1 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.
Duncan was interviewed Friday on CBS's "The Early Show."
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)