Education Opinion

I Think I’m Feeling Sick, Secretary Duncan!

By Susan Graham — August 26, 2009 5 min read
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The headline reads Flu Strategists See Schools on the Front Line. There seems to be little doubt that children represent the most vulnerable demographic group for H1N1 influenza virus. Estimates are that we will see the beginnings of a flu outbreak in October and while there is less concern about how deadly “swine” flu may be, there is more concern about the pandemic potential of a viral infection for which most human immune systems have no defense at this point.

One group that is taking H1N1 influenza seriously is the U. S. Centers for Disease Control. A race is on to produce enough vaccine in time to inoculate all school-aged children. One concern is that because the initial round of H1N1 proved to be less severe than expected, some people will not take this fall’s expected outbreak seriously until too late. Another is that many people will refuse the vaccine because of anxiety about unanticipated side- or long-term effects. This is not an unrealistic concern since it has been reported that in Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated places on Earth, only about fifty percent of healthcare workers indicate that they will take the N1H1 flu shot.

While not addressing the issue of health care workers, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius offered this plan for those children who may be in the greatest need of protection We anticipate using schools as partners to make sure that we reach out to kids who are a priority population to get the vaccination. Using schools as partners”--it may be just an unfortunate choice of words or maybe I’m coming down with something that makes me cranky, but it seems as if asking schools to partner with us” might feel a little more collaborative than “using schools as partners.”

Public education is often called on to assist with emergencies, and since schools are often the most approachable and accessible locations, it is both reasonable and responsible to use them for information dissemination and as staging sites or command centers during a crisis. But just as educators may not fully understand the constraints of other agencies such as CDC or Homeland Security, some of the recommendations they have put in place for public education may not align with the reality of what schools can do. The CDC webpage suggests action steps for schools that include:

• Remind teachers, staff, and students to practice good hand hygiene and provide the time and supplies for them to wash their hands as often as necessary.

• Clean surfaces and items that are more likely to have frequent hand contact such as desks, door knobs, keyboards, or pens, with cleaning agents that are usually used in these areas.

• Move students, teachers, and staff to a separate room if they become sick at school until they can be sent home.

• Have Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as masks available and ensure the equipment is worn by school nurses and other staff caring for sick people at school.

• Conduct active fever and symptom screening of students, teachers, and staff upon arrival at school.

• Find ways to increase social distances (the space between people) at school such as rotating teachers between classrooms while keeping the same group of students in one classroom, moving desks farther apart, or postponing class trips.

If you don’t spend your day in a school, these might seem reasonable, but if you are a teacher you wonder: Did the people over at CDC not know that only affluent school systems can afford to have a school nurse at every school site? Did anyone think through the logistics of screening the temperature of 1,000 middle school students as they all arrive within a period of thirty minutes? Was no one aware that in many schools, sick students wait for a parent in the front office where they are watched over by the school secretary who can’t answer the phone while wearing a surgical mask? Did someone have a plan for how an overcrowded school should go about implementing social distancing? Can’t anyone imagine what a challenge the most basic precaution, hand washing, presents when students are housed in trailers without running water?

Granted, some of these Suggested Actions are intended for a situation where a mild outbreak is evolving into a possible epidemic; and certainly we all need to make adaptations when there are unusual circumstances. But simply put, public health and crisis relief is not our job. We are responsible for student learning, and while we may be willing and able to assist the Department of Health and Human Resources and the Department of Homeland Security, we are accountable to the Department of Education; and the DOE’s mission is to “promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and equal access.” Holding a press conference outside a DC elementary school just as children arrived for their very first day of school, Secretary of Education Duncan said As the school year begins, I’m concerned that the H1N1 virus might disrupt learning in some schools across the country.
In order to minimize disruptions, DOE has provided resources on its website including Preparing for the Flu During the 2009–10 School Year Questions and Answers for Schools. You might want to read the details for yourself, but Secretary Duncan summed it up at the press conference, suggesting that

…..schools should evaluate what materials they have available for at-home learning. The latest guidance provides more details on methods schools could use, such as distributing recorded classes on podcasts and DVDs; creating take-home packets with up to 12 weeks of printed class material; or holding live classes via conference calls or “webinars.”

While some teachers have access to wonderful technology resources, not all students have access to a computer, broadband internet, or a cell phone. It is suggested that teachers should maintain regular telephone support or email support for those students who are housebound; but there is no advice for how a high school teacher can meet the needs of 120 students during five classes and make arrangements to tutor 30 or so homebound students.

Printed packets of work were another suggestion, but if schools cannot provide their teachers with access to technology, it’s unlikely that they can provide resources for instructional packets that cover 12 weeks of work. While people outside the education sector are often shocked to hear that teachers in some schools may be limited to one box of paper and 2,000 copier clicks a semester, it is surprising that DOE is not aware or did not consider this sort of limitation. But then again, perhaps they did know since the website does suggests that in between taking temperatures, calling parents, finding substitutes, and preparing packets, educators should consider soliciting local businesses and community groups for resources.

It is a compliment that public schools and the teachers in them are perceived as such effective and resourceful partners. It is a disappointment that so many parties are quick to offer directives on non-instructional initiatives without seeking the input from those of us on the “front lines” who will be expected to implement them. It is a conundrum that some stakeholders want to partner with public educators even as they complain that we are not performing up to standard on our primary mission. It is a bitter pill to swallow when schools and teachers are expected to continue to do more and more with less and less.

Actually, Secretary Duncan, I’m feeling a little queasy. It might be the flu. Could someone from your office come cover my classes for up to 12 weeks while I recuperate?

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.