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Hillsborough will reopen swine flu schools Thursday

Hand in Hand Academy is trying to guard against the swine flu by checking students' temperatures before they enter school each morning. Video: Maurice Rivenbark

UPDATE 5:40 PM.

TAMPA -- The Hillsborough County School Board on Thursday will reopen three schools that had been closed over likely exposure to swine flu.

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said the district was still in the process of cleaning Freedom High, Wilson Middle and Liberty Middle after probable cases were found in the first two schools.

"With that in mind, we will not change anything for tomorrow," she told the School Board. "However, based on the new guidance that has come from Centers for Disease Control and (Hillsborough County health director) Dr. Doug Holt, we will be reopening those schools Thursday."

Earlier today, the federal CDC announced it would no longer be recommending that schools be closed due to the presence of swine flu.The government had previously advised schools with suspected cases of the H1N1 virus to shut down for about two weeks. But federal officials are now saying the virus is milder than was originally feared.

Pinellas County officials said they would follow those recommendations should students in their schools contract the flu.

Holt cautioned that the region is still early in the swine flu outbreak, compared to the national developments tracked by the CDC.

And although swine flu infections appear more mild than initially feared, he said the decision to close Freedom High, Liberty Middle and Wilson Middle schools prevented the virus from spreading.

"Just by slowing it, the actions we took will have benefits on somebody," he said, noting that even mild influenza can be very harmful to residents with weakened immune systems.

"We are in touch with the schools. They are getting news of kids who are sick. So we know the virus is there," he said.

Pinellas Schools Superintendent Julie Janssen said Tuesday, "Our plan all along has been to follow the CDC’s recommendation. If they feel it’s not necessary to close schools, of course we’ll go along with that."

Today's developments came on the second day of a weeklong closure of three schools in Hillsborough County, with two probable cases of the swine flu virus at Wilson Middle and Freedom High. Another school, Liberty Middle, was closed because it shares a cafeteria with the latter school.

Hillsborough school spokesman Stephen Hegarty noted the difficulty of telling the families of the 4,000 students affected that schools would be closed for the week, and reversing course a few days later.

"We knew when we were getting into this that there would be people who criticized us for overreacting, and there would be people that thought we were under-reacting," he said. "We're fine with people second-guessing us."

Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the CDC, said today that the CDC is not seeing the rates of severe disease that were being reported initially out of Mexico.

“When you get to situations approaching that of seasonal flu, then the downside of school closures starts to outweigh the benefits of closing schools," he said.

Besser said the CDC has been in constant contact with state and local health officials on the school closure issue. “What we hear from them is how difficult and burdensome school closures are,” he said.

He pointed to situations where children were being dropped off at libraries, and people who could lose their jobs because of having to stay home to be with children. “These factors are real,” he said.

Secretary of Health Kathleen Sebelius, speaking on the same CDC conference call today, said the decision to revise guidelines is not an indication that enough is known about the course that the virus will take.

She said it does make it even more important that parents, teachers and others pay attention to sickness. The CDC continues to recommend that students, faculty or teachers who display flu-like symptoms stay home for at least seven days.

For more information and updates, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com or read tomorrow's St. Petersburg Times.

Tom Marshall, Letitia Stein and Richard Martin, Times Staff Writers

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[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 10:22am]

    

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