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School closings for flu could be expensive

September 30, 2009 |  8:56 am


Widespread school closings for a month in response to intensification of the pandemic H1N1 influenza virus could cost the American economy as much as $47 billion in lost work and lost school time, according to a new study released today by the Brookings Center on Social and Economic Dynamics in Washington. Many schools closed during last spring's outbreak of the so-called swine flu in the hope of containing the spread of the virus during the early stages of the outbreak. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends that, because the virus is so widespread, schools not be closed unless there are exceptional circumstances. If the virus should become more virulent, however, and begin to pose a bigger risk, the possibility of school closings remains an option to contain it because contact among schoolchildren is one of the major avenues by which flu spreads. Recent studies have suggested that such closings could reduce the total number of swine flu cases by 15% and the peak attack rate by about 40%.

But such closures could have severe effects on the American economy, in large part because so many parents would have to stay home from their jobs to take care of their children, according to the authors, Joshua Epstein, director of the center, and economists Ross Hammond and Howard Lempel. They modeled what could happen if all schools in the United States closed for four weeks. The team concluded that such closures could cost the economy between $10 billion and $47 billion. They estimated that as much as 12% of the workforce would be absent from the job because they would have to stay home with their kids, and that the rate would be higher among low-income families with only one caregiver. Perhaps more important, up to 17% of healthcare personnel would also be absent, severely impeding the ability of authorities to deal with the pandemic.

A four-week school closure would cost Los Angeles County $1.5 billion, according to the report. New York City would lose $1.1 billion and Washington $65 million. The total value of lost class time would be about $6.1 billion -- between $140 and $630 per student.

As of Monday, there had been at least 187 school closings this fall, affecting at least 79,678 students, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

-- Thomas H. Maugh II