This week, the word on everyone’s lips is one we never want to hear: pandemic. Mexico, the U.S., and now the whole world are closely watching and experiencing the spread of a respiratory disease caused by a type A influenza virus that regularly causes outbreaks of influenza among pigs – the swine flu.
So far, Mexico has been hit the hardest: a CNN article released this morning, states that the flu is suspected in 152 deaths and more than 1,600 illnesses. Mexican government officials have declared school closings until May 6. And, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are currently reporting that the U.S. has 64 confirmed cases within five states: California, Kansas, New York, Ohio, and Texas. There are also reports of the flu in Canada, New Zealand, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Israel.
President Obama has said the outbreak is a cause for concern, not for alarm. And there really is no need to panic at this point, especially because the U.S. government has started to take the necessary steps to prevent this from becoming widespread, including urging that non-essential travel to Mexico be avoided. Additionally, the government is putting out a lot of information on how to prevent the spread of the flu. The World Health Organization has raised the pandemic phase alert to level 4, which means that currently there is sustained human to human transmission, so it is imperative that everyone be proactive in combating this disease.
Unfortunately, schools can often be a disease spreading haven (as evidenced by the case in New York City), simply because they house hundreds to thousands of people in a confined location. The median age of all cases in the U.S. so far is 16 years. Therefore, schools need to have an active role in containing the spread of the disease as it is affecting the school-age population.
BoardBuzz knows that it is better to be safe than sorry when dealing with a possible pandemic. According to CDC experts, the 1918 flu pandemic experience taught us about the importance of intervening quickly and the need to involve the entire community in preventing the spread of the disease. Experts believe that the coming of summer might help curtail the flu, but also advise that preventive measures be taken now since flu viruses have been known to come back full force in the fall or winter.
The CDC’s Swine Influenza site contains a significant amount of information on swine flu and what can be done to prevent it. Questions from school districts, state education offices, and education associations across the country are continuously being answered on the site.
The New York school closed for a few days. And some Texas and California schools have also closed. So when should a school close? And what are the appropriate measures to take?
- The CDC recommends strong consideration of closing schools with a confirmed case of swine flu or a suspected case that has been epidemiologically linked to a confirmed case. Broader school dismissal should be left to the discretion of local authorities with the advice of the local health department and should take into account the extent of the illness in the community. The CDC has interim guidance available on its website to help with such community mitigation.
- It is also important to inform students, parents and staff about the symptoms, which can include cough, sore throat, body aches, headaches and a fever, and stress preventive measures such as washing hands frequently and covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing.
- Schools should also refer students who are complaining of flu-like symptoms to a health care provider, but also follow confidentiality guidelines. Experts state that there is no need to single out students who have recently been to Mexico and that they should only be asked to stay at home if presenting flu symptoms.
- The CDC highly recommends home isolation and social distancing, asking that those who have the flu stay at home for seven days after the onset of the disease.
- Secretary of Education Arne Duncan encourages all schools, districts and states to monitor closely the health of their populations and communicate with local health authorities, political leaders, and communities.
- In addition, your state school boards association, school district, and other education organizations may have useful guidelines in dealing with such an outbreak and/or emergency. The Washington State School Director’s Association produced a six-page publication on preparing schools for a flu pandemic with tips about policy considerations and other issues school boards should think about in response to a pandemic.
The U.S. Department of Education has created an email address (email@example.com) where education leaders and school staff can direct any questions related to how schools should be proceeding. They have also asked that if a school is closed due to swine flu, it be reported to them at this email address. In addition, the department will be continuously updating its blog on swine flu.
Be sure to check in regularly with NSBA’s school health web site for all the latest swine flu news and resources that you can use. And you’re invited to share with BoardBuzz your comments and tips for what your district is doing to deal with swine flu.