August 17, 2009

AUDIO: In the battle against H1N1 flu virus, schools are on the front line

Source: NYSUT Media Relations

New York schools "will be the front line in the H1N1 battle" this fall, says NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi.

Iannuzzi was among about 15 national education and health leaders who met with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan earlier this month to discuss how schools can effectively manage a potential large-scale spread of the H1NI virus. Now those leaders are back in their home states and raising awareness about coordinated efforts to combat the virus.

"A vaccination campaign will likely begin in schools sometime in mid-October," says Iannuzzi.in commentary airing this week on WAMC Northeast Public Radio. "Using schools as centers for mass inoculation administered by health professionals to schoolchildren and those most at-risk, is a logical and efficient plan, and a smart strategy designed to prevent many from ever contracting H1N1."

Commentary

Preparing Schools for a Pandemic

By Richard C. Iannuzzi

Audio

The final few weeks of summer are here and preparation for a new school year is upon us.

iannuzziChildren are busy shopping for new clothes and school supplies while parents make last-minute child care arrangements and try to figure out how to pay for everything. Teachers, too, are preparing: sharpening pencils and skills, and getting ready to greet their classes and embrace new challenges.

In addition to dealing with cutbacks and reductions in staff caused by the recession, this year's preparation for the start of school has a new and unexpected dimension. Across the country, education and health leaders have spent the summer diligently preparing for a - what-if - a real what-if - as in, What if the H1N1 virus, or swine flu, returns with a vengeance? Are we prepared? How will we weigh health needs against a proper education?

The Centers for Disease Control expects H1N1 cases to surge this fall. Unlike the outbreak last spring, it will occur alongside the normal influenza season. One pessimistic model from the CDC even predicts as much as 40 percent of the nation becoming ill - roughly 140 million people.

The good news is that H1N1, for a healthy person, is not an especially severe disease, about on par with seasonal influenza. The bad news is that it H1N1 is highly contagious and hits children and teenagers especially hard.

Clearly, schools will be the front line in the H1N1 battle.

A vaccination campaign will likely begin in schools sometime in mid-October. Using schools as centers for mass inoculation administered by health professionals to schoolchildren and those most at-risk, is a logical and efficient plan, and a smart strategy designed to prevent many from ever contracting H1N1.

And, for when H1N1 does appear, a good set of common sense guidelines prepared by the CDC has already been posted at www.flu.gov - guidelines the Center promises to update regularly.

H1N1 Flu Information

For schools, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is recommending that the closing of schools - as we experienced this spring - should it come to that, be a local decision based on local conditions. Duncan is wisely seeking a balance between the fear of the risk of flu and its spread - and the disruption, including lost learning time, which would come with school closures.

This is a wise approach. Our first and foremost responsibility should be to treat any H1N1 outbreak as a serious public health issue. By prioritizing health concerns ahead of educational concerns, we will make smarter decisions that, in the long run, will provide quality learning time for a greater number of students.

But to succeed, communication and collaboration will be essential. Federal, state and local governments and public health officials all have responsibilities, as does the entire school community. Transparency and forthright reporting of H1N1's impact in local school districts will be critical. Parents must be kept informed so that school closures, if necessary, will be based on accurate facts, not rumor or gossip.

Certainly, I hope - as we all do - that H1N1 comes and goes with little fanfare. But, if a major flu outbreak does occur, the best approach will be the same as for most wise actions: following common sense guidelines and maintaining strong and open communications.

The potential of a major H1N1 outbreak has brought together the education and health communities in a partnership not seen in a very long time. Hopefully, continuing that partnership will be the only lasting impact that H1N1 will have.

Richard C. Iannuzzi is president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.