Back to school season is full of preparation for teachers, from organizing lesson plans to prepping classrooms for the year ahead. But this fall, teachers are preparing for a new element in the classroom: the unpredictable threat of a swine flu epidemic.

Researchers are rushing to develop a swine flu vaccine, but the advent of flu season will likely outpace the release of an effective vaccine. “With a flu pandemic starting possibly in early to mid-September, and the protection through injection not available until December at the earliest, we have several months of coverage that we have to figure out how to get around,” said Jerald Newberry, Executive Director of the NEA Health Information Network.

That means that teachers, as well as parents and school administrators, need to be on high alert during the notoriously hectic back to school season. Wondering how teachers can prepare? Here are 10 ways that teachers can ready classrooms and students for swine flu this fall:

  1. Wash Hands. “The tools in our toolkit are fairly limited,” said Newberry, but hand washing is still the best way to keep the flu virus from spreading. Teachers should encourage children to wash their hands frequently and thoroughly throughout the day, and should follow suit themselves. “Hand sanitizer would certainly not be a bad idea,” added Anatoly Belilovsky, M.D., director of a pediatric practice in Brooklyn, NY.
  2. Keep Coughs and Sneezes Covered. The flu virus is spread through droplets from sneezes and coughs, so students should be taught how to cover their mouths correctly, and teachers should model proper technique. Sneezing or coughing into your hands or a tissue is good, but it’s even better to use the crook of your arm. Remember to always wash hands afterwards!
  3. Send Sick Students Home Immediately. “There is some evidence that swine flu may be more virulent than the ordinary flu,” said Joseph Bellanti, M.D., Professor of Pediatrics and Microbiology/Immunology at Georgetown Medical Center. However, he urges that people be sensible and follow the same protocol as with ordinary flu. “Body aches, fever, sore throat, cough, runny nose and headache” are all symptoms of the flu, said Bellanti, and indicate that students should be sent home as soon as possible.
  4. Give Allowances for Absenteeism. Parents and students alike may feel pressure to avoid sick days, but sending kids to school with even a hint of flu symptoms is a dangerous idea. Teachers should stress that taking sick days when a child is actually sick is not only okay, it’s imperative to prevent the spread of the illness. “Respect the parent’s decision of when to send kids to school and when not to,” urged Belilovsky. Make it clear that homework allowances will be given and student will have the opportunity to make up classwork when they return to school.
  5. Keep Classrooms Clean. Surfaces such as desks and doorknobs get a lot of traffic in classrooms, and can be a magnet for germs. “Work with the school custodian to keep the room extra clean,” advises Newberry, saying that teachers will likely need to take on more cleaning duties in the classroom.
  6. Experiment with Social Spacing. The CDC recommends that teachers devise ways to keep students further apart from one another, whether it means moving desks, holding classes outside, or otherwise experimenting with social distancing. However, Amy Garcia, President of the National Association of School Nurses, says social spacing may be a challenge this year due to increased over-crowding in classrooms. That means that teachers may need to get creative when it comes to keeping students a safe distance from one another.
  7. Be Aware of Your Own Health. Teachers come into contact with scores of students every day. “There’s a very good chance that some of our members will be exposed and many will get sick,” said Newberry, of the NEA. Keep your immune system healthy by getting lots of sleep and taking vitamins, including vitamin D, and don’t try to soldier on if you feel the beginnings of flu-like symptoms: go home and stay home until 24 hours after symptoms have disappeared.
  8. Develop Strategies for Homework. “As much as possible, continue the lesson plan that’s going on at school with homework assignments that students can do at home, and have makeup activities to help catch kids up,” advised Newberry. Whether it’s making class assignments and materials available online, or developing an action plan with parents for getting homework home, establish a system for getting materials to sick students before school starts.
  9. Stay Organized. Teachers know how to stay organized, but keep in mind that substitute teachers may need to pick up mid-lesson if principle teachers get sick. Make sure that your lesson plans will be legible to a sub, and keep class materials centralized or filed in an organized fashion so that they will be easy to find and follow.
  10. Prepare an Info Packet for Parents. Swine flu sounds scary, and it’s easy for parents to panic without knowing all the facts. Prepare your students’ families by putting together a packet full of information and recommendations, to be sent home on the first day of school or on back to school night. Be sure to include a list of flu symptoms, and tips for what to do if children get sick.
August 18, 2009