Health and Science News for Parents

If your school isn’t ready for the flu, you and your family should be

written by Tara Haelle

Now that school is in session, many moms across the country may be breathing sighs of relief for a little more time to themselves. I’m about to burst your bubble with some (slightly paranoid) news: your child’s school may not be prepared for a pandemic if one comes along.

At least that’s the conclusion of a recent study based on surveys from 1,997 nurses from 26 states on their school’s infectious disease preparation. The U.S. Department of Education requires public schools to have an action plan prepared for environmental disasters, biological events, etc. Hence the fire drills and tornado drills your kids love and teachers loathe. Chances are, your school doesn’t have an “influenza drill,” though I’m not sure what that would look like anyway. But the school should still have a plan for how they would take action if a rogue strain of the flu or another infectious disease (such as the SARS surprise) starts making its way through the halls.

About 40 percent of the schools who returned surveys have updated their school plan for a possible pandemic since the H1N1 virus in 2009. Though some have questioned whether the CDC made mountain out of a molehill with H1N1 influenza (which is costly), people did die from the flu strain, and the vaccine likely prevented many more deaths. But even having an updated plan isn’t enough — people have to know what it is and how to enact it, and nearly a quarter (23 percent) of the schools didn’t have any staff members who were trained on the school’s disaster plan.

Another finding was that 74 percent of the school nurses had gotten the flu vaccine during the 2010-2011 season (which leaves 26 percent who were foolishly risking the flu themselves as well as increasing the risk of passing it along to a student). Interestingly, mandatory flu vaccination policy for school nurses was in place at 43 of the schools. These have been controversial in recent years at hospitals, and I wasn’t aware that schools had them at all.

So, what does all that mean to you? It means you can bug the administration at your child’s school to find out if they have a plan and staff members trained on it. They can get ideas the Dept of Ed’s Pandemic Preparation website. Bring it up at PTA/PTO. Ask other parents to talk to the administration about it.

Since a third of the nurses said students get infection prevention training less than once a year, be sure your kids know the best way to avoid getting sick: Wash your hands. Wash your hands. Wash your hands. Of course there are a few other tips: get sufficient sleep, eat well, avoid the annoying kids who come to school sick when they shouldn’t, avoid sharing food and drinks (especially during flu season) and WASH YOUR HANDS.

And please, if your kids are sick, I don’t care what the attendance rewards are, please keep them home!

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