With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting approximately 44,000 cases of swine flu and at least 114 pediatric deaths since April, schools across the country are considering how to deal with a mass outbreak.
Some schools, such as St. Charles East High School in suburban Chicago and Grafton High School in Massachusetts, closed because of massive numbers of students and staff members calling in sick. (Both subsequently reopened.) And in New York City's public schools, staffers say that, because dozens of schools are functioning at more than 150 percent of capacity, they are having trouble isolating schoolchildren with fevers to stop the virus from spreading.
Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, says, "We know we can't stop the flu, but we can decrease the number of people who get sick from it and maybe help prevent our schools from closing."
That starts with simple, common-sense steps your child should take to protect his or her health. The most important are to wash hands often with soap and water, to cover the nose and mouth with a tissue when sneezing, and to avoid close contact with sick people. The key symptoms of the virus to watch for include fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, chills, and fatigue. Younger children (especially those younger than 2) and children who have chronic medical conditions might be at serious risk of severe complications from flu infection. If your child falls into that category, it's important to talk to your doctor early and ask if your child should be examined.
In children, warning signs that signal the need for urgent medical care include fast breathing or trouble breathing, bluish skin color, returning and worsening flulike symptoms, and fever with a rash.
Given the rhetoric used to describe the H1N1 virus and the uncertainty over how dangerous it might become, it's natural for children, parents, and teachers to feel anxious. Giving children a sense of control over their risk of infection can help reduce this anxiety, says the National Association of School Nurses. Keep updated on vaccine availability, review basic hygiene and healthful lifestyle practices with your children, and be honest and accurate. In the absence of factual information, children often imagine situations far worse than reality, says the NASN. Parents should contact the school if their child is sick and keep the child at home. More parent resources are available on the NASN website.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Education emphasize that communities should avoid school closures if possible to avoid disrupting students' learning. But some school districts are looking both to prevent H1N1 infections and to put protocols into place for continuing students' schooling when they're not even in school, in the event of a mass outbreak.
"It's a twofold issue," says Karen Jones, assistant superintendent of the Howell Township School District in New Jersey. "One piece is the health issues associated with it, but the second piece is the instructional side. How do we make a plan for continuity of instruction that's meaningful for kids?"
In case the school system has to close because of a swine flu outbreak, her district is developing a protocol to deliver two- to three-week instructional units to students through the Internet. Deeming its own internal technology and Web development tools too cumbersome, the district is working with Learn360, an online service for K-12 schools that delivers interactive distance learning programs.
Experts say that districts should take stock of the tools they have for delivering curricula to students outside of school. The federal Education Department urges an evaluation of available resources and technology and how those services could be coordinated with the resources students and families have at home. Strategies could be built around anything from take-home course packets to online materials, listservs, and DVD and MP3 players. Conference calls and Internet-based, webinar-style classes might also be effective ways of delivering class material. The Department of Education offers additional guidance on continuity of learning.