Education officials in Pinellas County, Florida and across Virginia have been trying to answer some very difficult questions: At what point in an avian flu pandemic would they close schools? Should schools be used as temporary health clinics, or even as orphanages? What about morgues? Could the districts offer online learning in the meantime? And how would schools communicate with parents? The prospect of a pandemic—which experts say could occur in the near future—is a topic few people enjoy discussing, especially on a clear summer day. But a particularly virulent strain of bird flu, known as H5N1, has infected humans in at least 10 countries since 2003, and federal officials have published checklists to help school districts across the country prepare for an outbreak. If symptoms appear in Pinellas County, teachers will instruct students to cough and sneeze into their elbows instead of their hands when there’s no tissue nearby, and students and school employees will be required to wash their hands three times each day. In Virginia, the state superintendent asked school officials in May to coordinate emergency plans with local health departments. “It’s coming,” said one Virginia emergency planner. “It’s just a question of when.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Web Watch blog.