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Peralta, Dept. of Ed urge update parents on swine flu

As parents in Queens grew upset over the city’s decisions to leave certain schools open amid swine flu scares, politicians and officials from a number of city agencies gathered in Corona last Thursday night to try to assuage residents’ fears.

Speaking at the auditorium at Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Corona, state Assemblyman Jose Peralta (D−Jackson Heights) urged roughly 30 parents and their children not to panic as the city announced the closures of PS 143 in Corona and IS 73 in Maspeth while leaving other schools in District 24 open. Seven public schools in Queens remained closed Tuesday, including IS 73 and PS 58 in Maspeth.

“We need to calm down, and the best way to calm down is to know the symptoms,” he said. Peralta also praised the city Department of Education, which became more forthcoming about providing student absence statistics for individual schools after elected officials pressured it.

Deputy Schools Chancellor Kathleen Grimm said the overall absentee rate is not what dictates school closures.

“It’s how many children in the school are exhibiting certain symptoms,” she said, noting the city Health Department monitors those numbers and the health commissioner makes a recommendation to the DOE when it believes a school should close down.

That information was little comfort to Jennifer Santana, president of the PS 7 Parents Association, who lambasted the city for not closing that school, which is right across the street from the shuttered IS 5 in Elmhurst.

Santana said 320 students and 20 staff members were absent from PS 7 last Thursday and school staff had turned the entire second floor into a “quarantine area.”

“At what point are we going to be considered closed?” she said. “We have kindergarten classes. We had to draw faces on the masks so they would understand.”

Dr. Roger Platt, director of school health for the DOE, said the agency would close the school if the Health Department recommended it, but noted that the move could adversely affect children whose families are struggling to make ends meet.

“We serve about 800,000 meals a day. We have children who depend on the schools for breakfast and lunch,” he said. “We try to balance what will be achieved by closing a school with what will be lost. Could we be wrong about some cases? We’re human beings. We’re doing the best we can do.”

Other officials also tried to calm fears about the potency of swine flu, which was confirmed in the death of IS 238 Assistant Principal Mitchell Wiener and was initially suspected in the death of a 16−month−old baby at Elmhurst Hospital.

Dr. Diane Sixsmith, chairwoman at New York Hospital Queens in Flushing, said her hospital has seen between 5,000 and 6,000 children since the first outbreak of the virus was reported at St. Francis Preparatory School last month and none of them required hospitalization.

“Most of you have something better to do than wait eight or nine hours for an illness your child will probably get better from on his own,” she said, noting her doctors recommend Tylenol or Motrin to reduce children’s fever.

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e−mail at jewalsh@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 154.

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