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St. Francis reopens after swine flu

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Life returned to normal for the first bell at St. Francis Prep Monday and the Catholic school’s 2,700−student body could not have been happier.

Hundreds of teenagers dodged drizzling rain and reporters to enter the Fresh Meadows campus, more than a week after it was closed following an outbreak of the swine flu, or the H1N1 virus, which sickened more than 50 students and teachers.

“It should feel the same since they cleaned it,” freshman Damien Persaud said before he stepped inside the school building at 61−00 Francis Lewis Blvd.

The students were welcomed back with a special public address message from Mayor Bloomberg, who paid a visit to the school as it reopened, along with other elected officials, such as City Councilman David Weprin (D−Hollis) and state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D−St. Albans).

Smith’s daughter, Amanda, is a sophomore at the school and has recovered from flu−like symptoms that she experienced last week, Smith said.

“We can’t guarantee that there will be no more H1N1 cases in the school, but we think that’s very unlikely. The important thing now is for the students and staff and New Yorkers across this city to continue to be calm and confident,” the mayor said at a news conference inside the school.

Two weeks ago, dozens of students were excused from school when they began experiencing flu−like symptoms and on April 24, the school was closed after the city Health Department discovered some of the students had contracted swine flu.

Hundreds of students flocked to Queens hospitals and doctor’s offices to check on whether they had the disease, which has killed one American and 25 patients from Mexico, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

“I felt bad. I wasn’t sick, but I knew people who were,” said Mimi Maley, a freshman from Maspeth.

As of press time Tuesday, the DOH said 69 of the city’s 73 swine flu cases were from St. Francis Prep and 5 of its 6 probable cases were associated with the school. A DOH spokeswoman said five students at nearby Q177 school, which was closed till Wednesday, were including in the Prep count because of the building’s proximity to the high school and the elementary students were associated with Prep students.

A St. Johns University undergraduate student, who was teaching at Prep, was had also contracted the flu, according to a University spokesman. Even though one−third of the student body experienced flu−like symptoms, none of the cases was serious, according to Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden.

“The good news is that it is no more severe than the seasonal flu,” he said at the news conference.

Taking no chances, the school’s principal, Brother Leonard Conway, shuttered the nation’s largest Catholic high school for more than a week, brought in specialized crews to clean every classroom and had students and staff fill out a health survey on the school’s Web site. The Franciscan brother said students were eager to return to their studies, especially those who were set to take their Advanced Placement and SAT tests in the next two weeks.

Students who were scheduled to take the college placement test last weekend are rescheduled to take it May 16, according to Conway.

“We’re hoping that within the next day or so things will be much better,” he said.

Bloomberg commended the Prep administrators for handling the situation in an organized manner without causing student panic.

“The conduct of you and your staff is truly remarkable for all of us,” Bloomberg said to Conway.

During a news conference Friday, Conway said he was disappointed with students who took an Easter trip to Mexico and are believed to have brought the disease to the school. The principal said he sent out a letter to parents a month before the week−long break that urged them not to send their teenagers on trips without supervision.

“I want to assure you that St. Francis Prep did not sponsor the trip,” Conway said.

None of the pupils at the school, which teaches special education students, had serious cases and were recovering, the city said. Frieden said he expects there to be more cases in the city, but was confident those cases would not be severe because New Yorkers are taking precautions.

“Flu spreads like other viruses, and we will be seeing it in our population,” he said. “We’ve looked at every intensive care unit in every hospital in New York City in the last 10 days. We’ve yet to find a single person who has a severe illness that could be from this.”

Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e−mail at ipereira@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 146.

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