The H1N1 virus, the “swine” flu, is an increasing concern with flu season here. According to an August 24th President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) Report, this flu strain in not necessarily “more deadly than other flue strains,” but it “is likely to infect more people than usual because it is a new strain against which few people have immunity.” PCAST predicts that the epidemic could infect 30-50% of the U.S. population, “with symptoms in approximately 20–40% of the population (60–120 million people), more than halaf of whom would seek medical attention,” causing a significant burden on hospitals.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website says that it “may recommend preemptive [school] dismissals based on information that the outbreak is becoming more severe.” In a Category Two or Three pandemic, the CDC recommends school closures for up to four weeks, and in a Category Four or Five, it recommends up to 12 weeks of closures.
The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit think tank, released a study in September on the potential economic impacts of such school closures, as well as the possible strain on hospitals, specifically identifying the impact of a four week closure.
With regards to potential school closures, Brookings made the assumption that young children would need to be supervised, causing some adults to miss out on work in order to watch these children, thus negatively affecting work output. Using this as a measure, the study estimated that “closing schools in the United States for four weeks would reduce U.S. GDP [Gross Domestic Product] by between $10 and $47 billion dollars, a cost equivalent to 0.1% to 0.3% of 2008 U.S. GDP.”
The virus might not reach epidemic levels in every part of the country, and thus schools would not be closed everywhere. The Brookings study thus researched the average cost of a four week school closure per student—anywhere from $140 to $630. It gave the example of D.C., saying that “there are 115,000 students in Washington, DC, so closing all D.C. schools for one week might cost between $4 million and $18 million dollars.”
“A main goal of closing schools is to delay and lower peak attack rates in order to avoid surpassing the health care system’s surge capacity” stated the report. Yet Brookings found that, because some health care workers would need to stay home with kids, “closing schools would risk inducing a substantial increase in health care absenteeism just as demand for health care hits its peak.” The study showed that absenteeism could reach between six and 19 percent of employees in relevant flu-fighting health care industries and occupations.
As a policy recommendation, the Brookings Institution suggested that, in the event of extended school closure, special arrangements could be made “for health care workers’ children (e.g. priority vaccination or non-parental supervision which could be provided at low-cost by sidelined workers from the educational sector).”