CDC Surveys Parental Attitudes, Experiences During 2009 H1N1 School Dismissals

During the 2009 influenza A (H1N1) pandemic, child care center and school dismissals (i.e., temporary closures) were common and occurred in the majority of states across the United States. However, little is known about the economic and social problems parents face during such dismissals.

To learn more about parents' attitudes and experiences after short-term school dismissals related to H1N1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Harvard Opinion Research Program (HORP) conducted a randomized telephone poll of 523 parents from 39 states whose child care center or school had been closed temporarily in response to H1N1.

This report summarizes the results of that poll, which found that 90 percent of parents agreed with the dismissal decision, and 85 percent believed dismissal effectively reduced influenza transmission. In most cases (58 percent), dismissal lasted less than or equal to three days. Overall, most parents did not report adverse effects related to dismissals of short duration. Only 3 percent of respondents said dismissal was a major problem, and 75 percent reported that it was not a problem. Approximately 20 percent of parents reported that an adult in the household missed work because of the dismissal, and 19 percent had a child who missed a free or reduced-cost lunch, but only 2 percent and less than 1 percent, respectively, said these were major problems. CDC said the findings in this report underscore that when making a decision to close child care centers or schools, public health officials should consider the acceptability of the resulting disruption to students, families, and communities.

Between Nov. 19-Dec. 9, 2009, HORP conducted a nationwide, random-digit-dialed telephone poll in areas of 39 states identified as having any schools reported closed by CDC's School Dismissal Monitoring System. Social Science Research Solutions, a polling company, oversaw field operations. Starting from a random sample of residential telephone numbers, trained interviewers used screening questions to identify 523 parents from all 39 states with a child aged less than18 years old whose child care center or school had been closed temporarily in response to H1N1 at any time since the opening of school in late summer or fall 2009.

Telephone calls were made during the day and evening on weekdays and weekends, and multiple attempts (a mean of six attempts on non-responding numbers) were made to reach each respondent before considering a telephone number unreachable. Respondents answered closed-ended questions during a telephone interview lasting approximately 15 minutes. To minimize recall bias, the data collection period was kept relatively short (3 weeks), and parents were polled as close to the period of H1N1-related school dismissals as possible; the time since dismissal ranged from approximately one day to four months. The response rate was 40.4 percent.Data were weighted to match the U.S. Census by sex, age, race, education, number of children in household, and home ownership, and by metropolitan area status according to the telephone exchange report, to mitigate possible nonresponse biases.

Dismissals lasting less than 3 school days were reported by 58 percent of parents, and 26 percent reported dismissals for five or more school days. Most parents (90 percent) agreed with the school dismissal decision. Among the parents, 81 percent believed the major reason for dismissal was to reduce transmission of H1N1 by keeping children apart, and 85 percent thought that dismissal was very or somewhat effective in reducing the number of cases of H1N1 influenza among children in the child care center or school.

When asked whether school dismissal overall was a problem for their families, 75 percent responded "not at all," 20 percent said it was a minor problem, and 3 percent said it was a major problem. When presented with a list of possible consequences, 42 percent reported they had experienced one or more associated with dismissal. The most commonly reported consequences faced by parents and families included missed work (20 percent) and child missing free or reduced-cost school lunches (19 percent). Few parents reported feeling at risk of losing their job (2 percent) or having their child miss health services usually provided by the school (1 percent). Overall, 7 percent reported any one of the specified issues posed a major problem.

Among parents, 4 percent reported problems arranging care for their children. Most parents (81 percent) reported that an adult in the household stayed with the child for some time during the school dismissal. Fewer parents reported that other adults, including family members outside the household (20 percent), a neighbor or friend (1 percent), or a babysitter (3 percent), stayed with the child at least some of the time, and 10 percent reported that their child stayed at home alone at least some of the time.

A majority of parents (56 percent) reported their child participated in at least one activity involving persons outside the household during the school dismissal. Children spent time with friends at one another's homes (30 percent), went grocery shopping (30 percent), and went to fast food restaurants (23 percent). Fewer parents reported children going to public events such as movies, sporting events, or concerts (17 percent), large shopping areas or malls (15 percent), or social events such as parties or dances (6 percent).

For more information, including tables of the complete findings, click here.

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