Schools Urged to Plan For Possible Bird Flu Outbreak

Published: March 22, 2006

RALEIGH, N.C. – Because of the recent spread of bird flu in Asia, Europe and the Middle East, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is encouraging schools to build on their emergency plans and procedures. She is urging institutions to put in place specific protocols so they will be prepared in the event of a U.S. pandemic outbreak.

In her address to attendees of the North Carolina Pandemic Planning Summit on March 21, Spellings said, “A flu outbreak similar to the one that occurred in 1918 has the potential to kill millions. Knowing that, it would be foolish to not take preventative steps now. If we wait until the first human-to-human transmission to get serious about our response – it will be too late.”

She added that one of the United States’ most vulnerable populations in the event of a pandemic is students. Health experts predict illness rates at the height of a pandemic will be highest among school-aged children – possibly 40 percent.

This presents major logistical challenges for schools and communities. Schools must prepare for a number of contingencies, including staff absences; school closures; caring for students; as well as the possibility that schools may need to be used as make-shift hospitals and quarantine or vaccine sites.

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Spellings added that colleges and universities would face related challenges, such as housing students who get sick and are unable to return home.

“There are three key steps to take,” said the secretary. “One, talk to your local health officials and work together to develop a plan. Then secondly, train your teachers and administrators to implement the plan. And finally, teach students and parents so they understand what to do in the event of a pandemic.

She encouraged campuses to learn from other communities, like Seattle, that already have plans incorporating pandemic flu in place. Seattle Public Schools’ pandemic flu plan is closely aligned with the City of Seattle’s plan, which includes planning for all city-wide services and maintaining their continuity.

To help schools respond to the threat, two new checklists for the education community-child care and preschool and colleges and universities have just been introduced. A third checklist for K-12 schools was released previously.

These lists help campus officials ask the necessary questions regarding who makes the call on school closures, communication systems and continuity of instruction if there are district-wide closures. The checklists can be accessed by going to http://www.pandemicflu.gov/plan/tab5.html.

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