Swine Flu: Is Your Local School Prepared?

Published on
April 27, 2009

The swine flu scare in the United States may have started with just two Southern California children, but it intensified with the discovery ofmore than two dozeninfected students at a New York City school. St. Francis Preparatory Schoolreported that 100 students had gone on a trip to Mexico recently and that, since the trip, 28 students at the school had come down with symptoms of swine flu.

Then,a school in South Carolina decided to close after some students returned from a Mexico trip there. Schools in New Zealand also reported studentswith symptoms. Although none of the U.S. students have suffered serious harm, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the incident offers reporters a good opportunity to ask tough questions of their local schools.

Disease outbreaks are just one among many disasters that could befall a school. We just marked the 10th anniversary of the Columbine shootings. Schools everywhere have had ample reason to set up disaster plans and, more importantly, to run drills with both staff and students.

If you have kids in school, just ask them if they remember a disaster drill recently at their school. I bet many of you will be met with a blank stare. (Although, if they are teen-agers, that might be a standard response.) My guess is that some school districts have made this a high priority, particularly those who have had a disaster nearby in recent years, but that others have gotten out of the habit.

  • Do these schools even have a plan for a disease outbreak? Ask your district, or each school depending on the size of the district, to show you its disaster plan. There is a good chance that alone will prove interesting. I asked a school district once for its plan, and a secretary had to go down to the basement and dig it out from under a pile of other files.
  • What is included in the plan? Does it have a one-size fits all strategy, or does it have flexibility depending on the type of disaster. As John Verrico, a spokesman with the Division of Homeland Security points out, "When there is an explosion or a chemical release, people think they should run to a public place and gather because that's what they do when there's a fire in the building, but you have to know where the plume is. Are you running right into a toxic cloud?"
  • When was the last time the school performed a drill on the plan? And what did the drill include? Was it on a Saturday with the janitor, two counselors and the school nurse? Or were the students actually involved.
  • What sort of medical staff, if any, does each school have on hand? And what is their level of training? Now, we can't expect every school nurse to have worked for the CDC, but it would be nice to know a little about their experience. You could have a story talking about the fact that very few of the schools in your area have anyone on hand who has dealt with much more than the occasional runny nose.
  • Do the recommendations in the plan make sense? Everyone in Mexico City is wearing masks, but the CDC doesn't even recommend mask use for people beyond medical professionals and others in direct contact with infected people. They do recommend hand washing. "I know some people feel more comfortable wearing a mask and there are certain circumstances where that might be of value," said Dr. Richard Bresser, the acting CDC director. "I would rather have people focus more on hand washing." This is a very simple question to ask. Is there a way for kids to wash their hands as part of the response to an outbreak scare? If all students are taken outside or herded into a gym without washing their hands, they might be increasing the chances of spreading an infection.

CNN has been blaring "Outbreak of Fear" all day. One thing reporters everywhere can do is bring some measure of reality to this story. We have seen outbreaks like this before. Remember SARS? Bird flu? Mad cow even? About 36,000 people die every year from the regular old influenza virus, and yet we don't have 24-hour coverage with body count updates crawling along the bottom of the screen. Keep it in perspective.