Responding to an alarming increase in absences at two city elementary schools, the Philadelphia School District and the city Department of Public Health announced plans yesterday to quell a rising panic surrounding swine flu in schools.
On the same day that the World Health Organization declared swine flu a full-scale pandemic, the district and Health Department advised parents that there was little to worry about locally. Information regarding reasons to keep schools open and ways to stop the swine flu from spreading were distributed to principals.
District spokesman Fernando Gallard said the two schools - William H. Hunter Elementary, at Front Street and Kensington Avenue, Kensington; and Rowan Elementary, on Gratz Street below Godfrey Avenue, Ogontz - had experienced a high volume of absences.
After a meeting for parents held at Hunter on Wednesday night, Gallard said that parents weren't convinced that there wasn't a risk.
"Parents are really concerned. They have not been reassured enough that this is another seasonal flu," Gallard said. "[And essentially] they're saying, 'We don't believe you, we're keeping our kids at home.' "
At Hunter, 57 percent of its 560 students were absent yesterday - up from 33 percent earlier in the week - while at Rowan, 22 percent of its 523 students were absent.
In addition, Gallard said the district had sent letters to parents of students in 10 city schools that had at least five instances of flulike illness.
Gallard, however, said yesterday that the district is neither tracking absences districtwide or at individual schools nor does it plan to compile a list of schools that have confirmed cases of swine flu.
"We are not collecting specific information on how many students have the flu and not releasing any specific information on how many flulike symptoms are H1N1," Gallard said, adding that the number of H1N1 cases versus common flu cases has not been determined.
Absentee rates are the highest this school year districtwide, but health officials said parents should not overreact.
"This is influenza, period. This is not influenza-plus," said city Health Commissioner Donald F. Schwarz.
The flu is similar to viruses that circulate each winter, Schwarz said. The issue is not the severity of the illness but that it is easily spread, especially among young people, he said.
Pennsylvania has had 560 confirmed swine-flu cases, and the city has had 123, according to the state Health Department. The city's first reported swine-flu death, and second in the state, occurred Sunday.
The district no longer tests for the virus and doesn't have updated numbers, Schwarz said, but no child in Philadelphia has died or been seriously hospitalized because of the illness.
"If we try to isolate this virus by closing schools, we will not succeed," said Schwarz. "It's circulating in grocery stores, it's circulating on buses, it's circulating in recreation centers and libraries and businesses and everywhere in the city."
Gallard said parents should understand that it's not a matter of the virus' being in certain schools and not in others: The virus is in Philadelphia and can spread anywhere.
He attributed the high concentration of absences in some schools to communities reacting in different ways.
Schwartz said that because the virus is spread through coughing and sneezing and not from environmental surfaces, shutting down schools for thorough cleanings is unnecessary. Instead, he said, the district is encouraging availability of hand-sanitizers and tissues, and cleaning schools as usual.
Closing would result in a loss of instructional time, an end to meals provided through school programs, and the potential health risk of having unsupervised children out of school.
He added that if certain symptoms, including fever and coughing, are found present in a student by a school nurse, the student will be sent home. *
For more information about swine flu in Philadelphia, call the city Department of Public Health at 215-685-6740, or go to www.phila.gov/health.
Staff writers Morgan Zalot and Regina Medina contributed to this report.