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Swine flu closes schools as health officials confirm Tampa Bay's first official case

It's official: Swine flu has arrived in Tampa Bay.

A Pinellas County man became the region's first confirmed case Monday as thousands of Tampa Bay area families focused on the immediate challenge of caring for kids who were unexpectedly at home.

Three Hillsborough schools were closed for a week due to likely flu cases. Some kids holed up at home while their parents tried to download homework assignments. Others, wondering what the fuss was about, headed to the mall.

"As a parent, it does feel a little Chicken Little-ish," said Lorie Briggs. "I think they took a reasonable precaution. I just wished it hadn't happened right as exams approach."

Her daughter, Raychel, a freshman at Freedom High where a 15-year-old was likely infected, stayed home watching horror movies and eating popcorn. Her cousin from Liberty Middle — which closed as a precaution since the schools share a cafeteria — joined in the fun.

Health officials reported five probable cases in Hillsborough. The Pinellas case, meanwhile, involved a 24-year-old man who recently visited Mexico. His apparently mild bout with H1N1 did not require hospitalization, but did little to quell the anxiety across bay area.

In South Tampa, parents from Wilson Middle School strained to remember whom their children came into contact with last week, and whether any were sneezing. One 11-year-old student was among the probable cases.

Maritza Caveda took the day off from her job at a law firm to care for her kids, a daughter from Wilson and a kindergartener from Gorrie Elementary who awoke with a cough.

"I would've done the same thing, stopped school immediately," she said.

But Freedom High parent Karl Marchesano would have preferred students in school learning basic hygiene. "I'm glad they're taking precautions, but it's outrageous," he said.

Nearly 9 percent of the district's 190,000 students were absent Monday, compared to an average of 5.7 percent last week.

School district officials spent the day resolving practical issues such as exams. Teachers at the three schools will likely be grading tests on a curve to compensate for the lost study time, said spokeswoman Linda Cobbe.

The policy of granting exam exemptions for students with perfect attendance records, which had been criticized for prompting students to go to school sick, has been suspended.

And students will likely not have to make up the lost school days at year's end. Hillsborough was already on track to teach children for an extra day beyond the state-mandated 180. The state Department of Education has granted the district a waiver for three of the days those schools will lose, and Gov. Charlie Crist is expected to forgive the remaining one.

Monday, custodians at the affected schools were trained to safely clean the buildings.

Officials with the federal Centers for Disease Control said it's reasonable to clean doorknobs, railings and other frequently touched surfaces. But it's not necessary to scrub or disinfect entire buildings, since the influenza virus doesn't typically survive more than eight hours on an exposed surface.

Private and Catholic schools also took steps Monday to prepare for an outbreak. Parochial schools with a confirmed infection will be closed for seven days, and siblings who attend other schools should also be kept home "until the quarantine has been lifted," said John L. Cummings, school superintendent in the St. Petersburg diocese, in an e-mail.

At Hand in Hand Academy in Lutz, a private school for students in prekindergarten through second grade, officials took the temperature of every child as they arrived at school, and sent home those who topped 99.2 degrees.

"With little ones you have to be cautious," said director Wendy Alexander. "Our parents have been incredibly supportive and grateful."

Some families called Wharton High to ask why their school hadn't closed since some of their students had attended the prom at Freedom Friday night or taken an SAT course there on Saturday.

But district officials said there was no medically sound reason to do so, based on state and federal health guidelines. "If they're not exhibiting any flu symptoms, we're not going to extend the closures to any other schools," said district spokeswoman Cobbe.

Federal health officials said Monday they were rethinking their advice that schools consider closing for as long as two weeks because of swine flu.

"Closing schools is not effective" in halting the spread of the virus, said Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, because the virus was apparently already in the community.

The new advice is part of a gradual easing of concerns over swine flu. While the disease has continued to spread across the United States and around the world, it is far less deadly than initially feared.

Times staff writer Letitia Stein contributed to this report. Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

Swine flu closes schools as health officials confirm Tampa Bay's first official case 05/04/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 9, 2009 11:44am]
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