Closures also exposed 'gaping hole' in state's public health law, nonprofit researcher says

PORTLAND — For some Oregon families, the swine flu scare hit them when they could least afford it.

The Oregonian reports more than 10,000 students missed at least one day of school in the past two weeks because of school closures in Forest Grove, Eugene, Willamina, North Bend and Polk County's Central School District.

The closures were meant to contain the virus and prevent it from spreading during the early stage of an outbreak. But it left many parents scrambling to find babysitters or take vacation time.

Dr. Mel Kohn, Oregon's public health director, says the disruptions to families were not far from the minds of public health and school district officials as they considered closures.

"When you're at the beginning of an outbreak of a new disease, you don't know what you're dealing with," Kohn said. "The disruption to people's lives is outweighed by the need to be cautious about what could be a dangerous or deadly situation."

He advises families to prepare for disruptions, such as disease outbreaks and natural disasters.

Oregon's Family Leave Act protects many parents working at least 25 hours a week for 180 days in firms with at least 25 employees. The act covers those parents if they miss work to tend to a sick or injured child.

But if they miss work because their child is only at risk of becoming sick — as was the case for all but a handful of families during the swine flu outbreak — they are not protected by the law.

"It's definitely a gaping hole in public health," said Kevin Miller, research associate with the Institute for Women's Policy Research, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

Under the Oregon act, eligible parents can take as much as 12 weeks of unpaid leave, or any accrued paid leave if they have it, during a 12-month period, said Kate Newhall, spokeswoman for Oregon's Bureau of Labor and Industries.

"In terms of other options for parents whose schools have been closed, there's not a protected leave that guarantees them time," Newhall says. "I'd be hopeful that employers would be willing to work with their employees on this."