Friday, September 01, 2006

School preparedness for pandemic flu is a must

Preparing for a pandemic is like studying for a test. If you want to do well, you've got to be ready. Nowhere is this more true than in our schools, which are the center of community life. While schools work to educate our kids, they also provide social services and extracurricular programs. And since schools are so important to our communities, it is essential that they are involved in pandemic flu planning, both for their schools and with their communities.

How will schools operate if people get sick? When a flu pandemic or other infectious disease outbreak strikes, schools will need to have policies in place to accommodate sick students, teachers and staff who are absent for long periods. During the pandemic flu outbreak that swept through the United States from 1918 to 1919, schools around the country were closed to prevent spread of disease. And even in schools that were open, parents kept their kids home out of fear.

What will it mean for schools if this happens again, whether from pandemic flu or some other disease? For students, this may include posting schoolwork online, at least for those who have Internet access at home. For teachers, this may require more paid sick leave. The school year may need to be extended to make up for lost classes.

If a pandemic or outbreak is widespread in a community, and hospitals are overwhelmed, it is possible that schools will be closed and used for other purposes. Think of what happens when there are community disasters such as hurricanes or flood: Schools become much more than places for reading, writing and arithmetic. Oftentimes school cafeterias, gymnasiums and auditoriums become shelters to care for residents. Schools need to consult with their local health departments now to determine whether their buildings will be used as medical facilities, shelters or food distribution sites for residents in the event of a pandemic. Beyond infrastructure, schools could also lose some of their staff, as school nurses, counselors and other personnel are put into service to help out in the larger community. If so, who will be there to care for our schoolchildren?

Governments, school organizations and others have started thinking through these questions, and resources for schools to create plans are available online. If you are a parent, caretaker or just a community resident, it's up to you to find out how ready your schools are. If they're not, talk to your principal, school board or local elected leaders and offer to help. The time to get ready is now.

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