Is Your School Prepared?

I guess the old adage is true… when it rains it pours! The economy is in a fragile state, the stock market has fallen, school funding has been slashed, cuts are being made to salaries and to staff, and now swine flu!
Hopefully by the time you read this column, we will have found that things were not as bad as are currently being reported in the news, and that the H1N1 virus will be no more severe than the seasonal flu. But, as of this morning, U.S. health authorities reported that the number of confirmed cases across the country exceeds 400 in 38 states, two have died in the U.S. (one a teacher), and adding “probable” cases to “confirmed” cases would raise that number to 1,100-plus.

Unfortunately, many of the clusters we have seen so far have been in schools. Twenty-eight students at St. Francis Preparatory School, in Queens, NY, tested positive for the swine flu. Classes were cancelled there, and in more than 100 other schools across the country where probable cases were identified. Initially, federal officials recommended that schools shut down for two weeks if they had any suspected cases of swine flu. Now, the recommendation from the CDC is that schools only consider closing if a large cluster of infections affects faculty or student absenteeism and hampers the school’s ability to function. This change was based, in part, on the fact that the virus is causing less severe symptoms than originally feared, the fact that the virus is already rooted itself in communities across the country making containment near impossible, and the hardship placed on parents to care for their suddenly out-of-school children. With finals and advanced-placement exams set to begin, high school graduations only a few weeks away, and the end of the school year quickly approaching, being able to safely keep schools open has been welcome news.

In addition to their recommendations on schools closings, the CDC also recommends the following.
  • Students, faculty, or staff with influenza-like illness (fever with a cough or sore throat) should stay home and not attend school or go into the community except to seek medical care for at least seven days, even if symptoms resolve sooner.
  • Students, faculty, and staff who are still sick seven days after they become ill should continue to stay home from school until at least 24 hours after symptoms have resolved.
  • Students, faculty, and staff who appear to have an influenza-like illness at arrival or become ill during the school day should be isolated promptly in a room separate from other students and sent home.
  • Parents and guardians should monitor their school-aged children, and faculty and staff should self-monitor every morning for symptoms of influenza-like illness.
  • Ill students should not attend alternative childcare or congregate in settings other than school.
  • School administrators should communicate regularly with local public health officials to obtain guidance about reporting of influenza-like illnesses in the school.
  • Schools can help serve as a focus for educational activities aimed at promoting ways to reduce the spread of influenza, including hand hygiene and cough etiquette.
  • Students, faculty, and staff should stringently follow sanitary measures to reduce the spread of influenza, including covering their noses and mouths with a tissue when coughing or sneezing (or coughing or sneezing into their sleeves if a tissue isn’t available), frequently washing hands with soap and water, or using hand sanitizer if hand washing with soap and water is not possible.

Many of our schools were better prepared for this possible pandemic, their emergency plans having been dusted off after the threat of the avian (bird) flu and SARS a few years back. The focus of most of these emergency plans has been on the safety of people, but I wonder how many schools have spent much time on developing and testing a business continuity plan. Given the human tendency to look on the bright side, my guess is that many would rather ignore what seems like an unlikely event than to plan for it. But the unlikely has been happening lately, so I suggest that you be sure your school is prepared.