Friday, January 05, 2007

School closures during a pandemic: Distancing makes a difference

School's out for...three months? Unlike Alice Cooper's 1970s rock anthem, summer may not be the only time schools close. To prevent the spread of infections during a flu pandemic, they may very well have to shut down in the middle of the school year.

Scientists believe that one of the main ways to minimize the number of people getting sick and dying during a flu pandemic is by limiting our interactions. Because classrooms are prime environments in which kids can catch the flu and other illnesses, it's important to focus on schools. A key reason is shared physical space: In elementary school, the average distance between children is just under 4 feet. They're sitting at desks or playing in gym class and touching the same supplies, doorknobs and faucets. After catching the flu from each other, they then bring it home to their families.

That's why the federal government recommends that schools close and that kids and teens stay home during the early stages of a flu pandemic. Will that really make a difference? Well, the average distance between people in a typical U.S. home is roughly 16 feet, quadruple the distance between people in schools. Closing schools would also reduce the amount of time kids interact with each other, which means the situation would be much better than if we continued reading, writing and arithmetic as usual.

Photo credit: Eyewire

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