Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) believe the H1N1 virus, popularly known as “swine flu,” could affect up to 40 percent of Americans over the next two years, depending on the effectiveness of a new vaccine and planned information campaigns. This figure reflects a 100% increase over illness in a normal flu season.
What does all of that mean for school administrators? Stuart Weiss, PhD., a pandemic preparedness expert and founding partner of MedPrep Consulting Group, warns, “School administrators should be very concerned about H1N1, or swine flu, this coming school season. This strain of flu never died down over the summer and there is every indication that once schools reopen, there will be a resurgence of H1N1 flu cases across the U.S.”
Swine flu is similar to regular flu viruses in how it is transmitted, the symptoms it presents, and how it may be prevented. What makes swine flu of special concern to school administrators is the vulnerability of children and young adults, ages 5-24.
Fear spreads even more quickly than the flu, however, so it is important to remain calm and keep the community informed. “At this point, the two greatest threats to schools come from large numbers of staff and students being sick all at once, which makes it hard for a school to function, and from unfounded fears and anxieties among parents and staff,” explained Naomi Zikmund-Fisher, Principal of Ann Arbor Open School and the Training Coordinator for the Ann Arbor Public Schools crisis teams. Zikmund-Fisher continued, “Mostly, [principals] should know that this is still the flu, and we do flu every year.”
American Association of School Administrators (AASA) Executive Director Dan Domenech emphasized the need for “cooperation and collaboration.” Domenech said, “School districts and principals should have already established a relationship between local health officials with a plan clearly outlined for all of them.” Take a proactive and measured approach and you will be ready for whatever the flu season brings.
Experts recommend that school administrators make preparations for this flu season, review hygiene to minimize the spread of viruses, remain calm, and communicate effectively with teachers, parents, and the rest of the community. As the school year begins, here are some additional tips and help reduce the spread and impact of swine flu on your community.
- Knowledge is power: The most up to date information on swine flu, posters, form letters, and recommendations for schools, may be found at Flu.gov and the Preparing for the Flu: A Communication Toolkit for Schools (Grades K-12) from the CDC. These websites are your primary resources in preparing for and coping with flu season.
- Cleanliness is healthiness: The simplest way to effectively limit the spread of the flu virus is “…good hand hygiene, proper cough/sneeze etiquette, social distancing and augmented cleaning. Faculty should spend some time teaching children to sneeze into their elbows and to sing ‘happy birthday’ to themselves twice while washing their hands with soap. These simple things can reduce the spread of illness through a school. High traffic, high touch areas should be cleaned frequently and everyone must be reminded to wash their hands prior to eating. Good hygiene will not only limit the spread of influenza but can go a long way to stop the spread of other winter respiratory illnesses such as RSV or colds,” according to Weiss.
- Encourage Healthy Habits: Now is a great time to review good nutrition and adequate sleep with students. Bolstering the immune system helps fight the flu virus. And as flu shots become available, provide parents with information about where they may obtain these vaccines. According to a recent AASA survey, “Seventy-one percent (70.5 percent) of respondents would be interested in hosting H1N1 vaccination clinics.” Domenech noted, “By and large our administrators are very supportive and working with health officials.”
- Keep your distance: Increasing “social distance” may limit the spread of flu viruses. Moving desks further apart is a simple preventative step. In case of a more severe outbreak, principals may consider holding classes in larger classrooms or outdoors, dividing classes into smaller groups, postponing class trips, and taking other actions to minimize potential contact with infected people or surfaces.
- Be prepared: School administrators should take time now to revisit and revise their flu plans. Include current contact information for local public health and education agencies, identify substitute personnel for key staff members, and determine who should be involved in the decision-making process. If there is a confirmed case of swine flu in your school, your actions will set the tone, help maintain order, and possibly save lives.
- Communicate: During flu season, principals should be prepared to communicate with families about the situation in their community. Zikmund-Fisher encourages principals to “…give more information about the situation in their school, not less.” Although the temptation may be to provide information on a “need-to-know” basis, in the absence of clear guidance, rumor and conjecture fill the void. The CDC website has sample letters to mail to families.
- Remain calm: As a principal you are more than an administrator, you are a community leader. Staff, students and family will take their cues from you. Zikmund-Fisher explained, “Above all else, Principals must, must, must stick to the known facts and take their lead from the experts. Their own anxiety and speculation becomes the "official truth" when it gets spread to their communities.”
- Identify and dismiss symptomatic staff and students: Screen staff and students for flu symptoms. If anyone becomes ill while at school, isolate them until they can be sent home. Surgical masks for those who are ill and those who come in contact with them may help prevent further spread of the virus. If staff or students are ill, encourage them to stay home. Consider removing any attendance incentives. Current CDC guidance is to remain at home until at least 24 hours after there are no signs of fever (without the use of fever-reducing medications, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen). Should the flu outbreak become more severe, then students and staff who are ill should remain home for at least seven days following the onset of symptoms. During an outbreak, high-risk students and staff (e.g. pregnant women and those with asthma, blood disorders, cardiovascular conditions, or immune deficiencies) should make decisions about attendance in consultation with their physician.
- Stay open if possible: The CDC urges schools to remain open when possible. If the flu situation becomes severe enough, you may need to send students home. Instead of closing the school, you may choose to dismiss students and allow teachers to continue to use school facilities to develop and deliver lessons. Work with local and state health officials to determine when and if it is necessary to dismiss school.
- Have an education “Plan B”: In the event of extended absences or even school dismissals, have a plan in place. Utilize available technology, such as programs like Blackboard, online curricula, video lectures, and teleconferencing, and draw upon community resources so students can continue learning. In districts where the availability of technology is limited, Domenech noted that organizations within the community could provide “…a tremendous service that would be very helpful to the children” by distributing school assignments to students who are home ill. And Domenech urged schools to remember children who are dependent on free and reduced lunch programs; the CDC website notes, “the Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued guidance on how schools or other community organizations can receive authorization from their States to utilize the Summer Food Service Program or the Seamless Summer Option to be reimbursed for meal service to children who qualify during H1N1-related school dismissals.”