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The day in swine flu: More schools shut, absences now online

The Department of Education announced that it was closing three more schools in Queens today because of swine flu fears, bringing the total of closed schools to 24 in 20 different locations. And in response to growing concern that it was not being straightforward about the disease’s magnitude, the department also said it would begin posting up-to-date attendance data for all city schools on its Web site.

The newly closed schools are PS 242 in Flushing and PS 130 and P 993, which share a building in Bayside. They will reopen on Tuesday, after the long weekend, along with most of the other closed schools, the department said. A few schools are scheduled to reopen on Friday.

Comptroller William Thompson, City Council members, and even usually timid members of the Panel for Educational Policy have criticized the DOE over the quality of its communication about the flu crisis. Today, Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm announced that the department would start sharing to-the-moment attendance data, in a move she said parents and teachers have requested. The data, which will be updated daily, are available here.

I eyeballed the attendance data quickly and saw lots of elementary school attendance rates far below the citywide average rate of 93 percent of elementary schools. Attendance in the Queens districts where the flu is most severe is obviously down significantly: JHS 169 in Flushing, which usually has 94 percent of students present, had only 66.9 percent attendance today, for example. In a neighboring district, another middle school, 51st Avenue Academy, had only 67.4 percent of students show up today, compared to 97 percent on a typical school day.

In a statement, Grimm repeated the department’s criteria for determining whether a school should be closed, which center around a spike in the number of students reporting to the school nurse with flu-like symptoms. “Absenteeism alone is not a basis for closure,” she said.

The teachers union is planning to share its own flu-monitoring reports tomorrow. Union president Randi Weingarten is set to announce the union’s results at IS 227 in East Elmhurst, Queens, the school that PEP member Dmytro Fedkowskyj said had been laid low by flu. IS 227 also had an attendance rate under 70 percent today.

At a meeting I attended tonight, the head of the city’s school district for severely disabled children, Bonnie Brown, said DOE staff members have been calling the homes of all students who are absent from the district’s schools to find out whether they are suffering from the flu.