Schools should not close for swine flu

USF is prepared to close school this semester in the event of a large swine flu outbreak. However, while it may seem counterintuitive, closing schools may not be the best way to deal with swine flu.

Health experts say the H1N1 virus, more commonly known as swine flu, may resurge during the fall and winter months. Student Health Services (SHS) sent a letter to all faculty members in August advising them to make plans in the event that school closes.

According to the e-mail, teachers must be ready to conduct class through “Blackboard, Elluminate, Skype, e-mail messaging and/or an alternative schedule.” Closing school seems like a very real option.

However, a report released Wednesday by the Brookings Institute found that closing all U.S. schools for four weeks would cost $10 billion to $47 billion.

The report, issued by the Brookings’ Center on Social and Economic Dynamics, also said this was a conservative estimate. The report only considered K-12 schools, so closing colleges would make the price much higher.

There would also be an impact on families if students were kept home.

The report estimated that keeping all students home would prevent 12 percent of workers from doing their jobs. Low-income families would be affected especially, as many only have one worker in the home. Twenty percent of the projected absentees are the sole household providers, which means their families may not earn any income on days schools would stay closed.

Students would miss out on learning as well, and the estimated cost of that loss of education is $6.1 billion per week.

Closing schools in major cities would also come at a steep price. It could cost Washington, D.C., $65 million, New York City $1.1 billion and Los Angeles County $1.5 billion.

The report called these costs surprisingly high, and the government is telling schools to close only as a last resort. Yet, according to the U.S. Department of Education, at least 187 schools have closed this semester already, affecting at least 79,678 students.

While there have been confirmed cases of swine flu across the country, including at USF, few of these outbreaks should have warranted school closure. In addition to the high cost, closing schools may have done nothing to stop the spread of swine flu.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said on NBC’s “Today” that closing schools won’t stop the flu. She said vaccinations should be the defense.

“What we know is that we have the virus right now traveling around the United States,” Sebelius said. “And having children in a learning situation is beneficial … What we learned last spring is that shutting a school down sort of pre-emptively doesn’t stop the virus from spreading.”

If vaccinations are the best way to stop the virus, sending
everyone home may actually make it harder to fight off the flu. If students are already in one place, it will be much easier for vaccines to be administered.

The Brookings report also found that absenteeism caused by school closures would affect health care workers. Some workers who would otherwise distribute and administer vaccines and medicine during an outbreak would have to stay home with their children.

The report estimated the decrease in productivity not in absent workers but in how many work hours would be lost. The drop in work hours is expected to be anywhere between 6 and 19 percent.

SHS plans to administer the vaccine for free in the Marshall Student Center this month. They also plan to administer the seasonal flu vaccine.

Keeping schools open will make it easier for students to access these vaccines and ensure that there is enough workers to administer them. Though the University is prepared to close, it should only do
so in the most extreme situation.

Michael Hardcastle is a sophomore majoring in creative writing and mass communications.