Recession, Swine Flu Cloud US Back-To-School

by VR Sreeraman on Aug 31 2009 12:27 PM

Children head back to school in the United States in the coming days facing concerns over the threat of swine flu and as tough economic times force teachers and families to count their pennies.

"There is no question that the recession has hit states budgets very hard and local budgets," making tough decisions on where to cut spending are necessary, said Russ Whitehurst, a Brookings Institute education expert.

"It will be a challenging time for school administrators planning for something like a flu epidemic. It doesn't take a lot of financial resources, but it does take time. And that's time we don't spend on academic planning," said Whitehurst, former director of the Institute of Education Sciences inside the US Department of Education.

To make up for the sharp decline in state tax revenues due to the recession, the administration of President Barack Obama included 100 billion dollars for education as part of the economic recovery package.

But that did not stop some states from having to cut back their education budgets including New York and California, which is grappling with an historic deficit.

"Larger class sizes, canceled summer school, a shorter school year, and no new textbooks are just a few of the painful results," said California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell.

"It's not uniform," noted Whitehurst. "In most states we are not dealing with cuts but rather the school's districts are having to work with the same budget or close to it."

"Some states have... cut back the transportation budget to save (for) education," he said.

While some school districts have a limit on how much parents can be asked to spend, Whitehurst said, "at the other end, you'll find districts that are requiring parents to cover more the cost of sports and other extracurricular activities."

With the recession making lower spending the watchword parents are also tightening pursestrings. This year they will spend an average 82.62 dollars on supplies, down 7.7 percent from 2008.

The swine flu scare has retailers and schools scrambling, stockpiling sanitizers and readying for mass vaccinations while preparing online homework plans in case of heavy absenteeism.

In the government's worst-case scenario the A(H1N1) virus, which spreads easily among children, could cause as many as 90,000 deaths in the United States alone. Since it appeared in April the virus has infected about two million people nationally, left 7,983 hospitalized and 522 dead.

The government also fears absenteeism could take an economic toll.

"What we learned last spring is that shutting a school down sort of pre-emptively doesn't stop the virus from spreading," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said recently on NBC.

Official policy includes recommending that teachers prepare for students to use the Internet and laptops, to put homework online, and remain in close contact with students and their parents.

For the winter season, the so-called "Dracula sneeze" is all the rage: wherein one sneezes with their face protected by the crook of their arm so as not to spread disease.