Hundreds of thousands of parents scrambled to meet an unexpected logistical challenge: What to do with the kids?
But on Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the swine flu virus had turned out to be milder than initially feared, and thus the change in advice: No need to close schools, but do keep sick children with flulike symptoms at home for at least seven days.
Also Tuesday, Texas health officials confirmed the first death of a U.S. resident with swine flu. Authorities said the 33-year-old schoolteacher's death was a combination of the flu and chronic health problems, and not a reason to panic.
Mercedes Independent School District, where the woman taught, announced it would close its schools starting Wednesday and reopen May 11.
Nationwide, it seemed school districts were acting immediately to the federal advice. Some queried by The Associated Press said they would reopen Wednesday. Most others said they would wait until Thursday. A few planned to wait until Monday.
In changing their advice, health officials said they had considered the problems the closings created for parents.
Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said officials heard about children getting dropped off at libraries or about parents who could not take sick leave to care for children. "The downsides of school closure start to outweigh the benefits," Besser said.
That certainly rang true for parents like Lien Addo, an engineer in Silicon Valley. Her daughter's preschool in West San Jose, Calif., had closed Friday after a student in a higher grade came down with a probable case of swine flu.
After a series of phone calls, Addo had arranged for various friends to watch her daughter. Reached on her cell phone Tuesday, she was relieved to hear she would soon be able to stop the makeshift scheduling. "That's great," said Addo, 35. "My daughter loves school."
But like many parents, Addo had supported the closure at first, despite the hassles, based on what officials knew at the time.
"I'd rather have them be on the precautionary side than to have a widespread flu epidemic at the school," she said.
To other parents, the new government advice was merely confirmation of their belief that officials had overreacted.
"It seems like they all jumped the gun," said Laurie Williams, mother of a sixth-grader and a kindergartner in Flower Mound, Texas, near Dallas. "It was an overreaction. It's just a flu."
During the closures, Williams spent time with her children in a bustling park in suburban Dallas, where dozens of kids, from toddlers to teens, played side by side, climbing a wooden castle structure, playing tag or soccer or volleyball. It was an irony many pointed out: The closings were intended to cut down contact between students, but in the end, many students had plenty of contact anyway.
"For us it's good, but it's kind of stupid because we're still associating with each other," said Michael Loomer, 16, who was working on an intricate game of tag with his friends Monday in that same park.
That's how Emma Nicassio felt, too, heading happily to the mall with her mom in Independence, Ore.
"If they don't get it from school, they're going to get it somewhere else," Nicassio said.
While few parents seemed worried that their kids would be vulnerable to swine flu by going back to school, there were other concerns. Some wondered whether school districts might extend their calendars into the summer to make up for lost time.
Carine Knight of Maple Plain, Minn., near Minneapolis, noted that she had already paid for summer Bible camp for her kids. "You can't just say, 'Push mine back a week,"' she said. "Everything's going to be juggled."
For other parents, for whom the logistical challenges were easier, relief that schools would soon reopen was tempered by a bit of disappointment at losing time they thought they would have with their kids.
"I'm a little sad," confessed Monica Whitfield Brase, in Indianapolis, where her kids' school was reopening on Thursday. She works as a substitute teacher, so she was able to take the week off to care for her 7- and 9-year-old daughters.
They'd been having a great time.
"We've been doing fun educational things," she said. "Today we made cheese in the morning with another family, and then we went hiking. Honestly, I've loved being with my kids."
For someone thoroughly disappointed with the news from the government, there was 8-year-old Jack Tishkevich, son of Joan Tishkevich in Kennebunk, Maine.
"I feel strange," the youngster said. "I was pretty excited when they closed school. I was dancing, actually."
Now, Jack said, "I want to see my friends again. But school ... it's kind of boring."
For facts about influenza, and more information about swine flu, please visit the Health Department and CDC websites. Some specific resources:
From New York City Health Department
Facts about flu
From Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
General information about swine flu
Swine Flu Case Definitions
Swine Flu Infection Control and Patient Care
Preventing the Flu
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