A federal plan for responding to a possible flu pandemic places great responsibility on local governments, including school districts, should a human-transmitted outbreak occur.
The report, which the White House issued last week, warns that in scope, a flu pandemic—which could happen if the current avian flu becomes contagious among humans—would be more like a war or a widespread economic calamity than a localized hurricane, earthquake, or act of terrorism. As such, the federal government would have its hands so full that it would be less able to respond directly to local needs, the report asserts.
“Local communities will have to address the medical and nonmedical effects of the pandemic with available resources,” it says.
The “implementation plan” adds detail to the national pandemic-flu strategy that the Bush administration issued in November. That report said the federal government would consider closing schools early in an epidemic to help control its spread. (“Schools Urged to Prepare for Flu,” Nov. 9, 2005)
The new, 227-page report includes more than 300 steps that governments at different levels, businesses, and individuals can take to combat the pestilence. In the plan, the federal government says it bears primary responsibility for helping contain the flu overseas and limiting the arrival of the disease to the United States; giving guidance on protective measures; shaping laws and regulations to aid a national response; procuring and distributing vaccines and medicines; and accelerating medical research to respond to an outbreak.
Although the plan cites President Bush’s recent $7.1 billion funding request for preparedness, it does not identify sources of funding to help local governments pay for services after a pandemic hits.
Schools as Hospitals?
Some observers say that school districts are aware of the need to prepare for a widespread outbreak but have not taken many concrete steps.
“There’s a readiness, but not very much progress,” said Brenda Z. Greene, the director of school health programs of the National School Boards Association, in Alexandria, Va.
An appendix to the plan recommends that school districts establish an array of response plans, procedures for making decisions and coordinating with other agencies, and communication methods.
For example, the guidance recommends that districts coordinate planning with local and state health departments and state education agencies. Districts may need to help provide “surge capacity of health care and other services” for local needs, including designating schools as contingency hospitals or feeding centers for vulnerable populations.
Building a strong relationship with the local health department is critical for school districts’ preparations, Ms. Greene said.
School districts should be “ratcheting up their concern and taking measures to be prepared now,” said Julia Graham Lear, the director of the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools at George Washington University in Washington.
“I believe [federal health and security officials] cannot be asking us to take this seriously if they didn’t believe that mutation of the avian flu virus is possible, and if it happens, you don’t want to be doing your planning after an outbreak,” Ms. Lear said.
She worries that districts may do little until “the first time a sick bird falls from the sky—and we’re going to go from zero attention to panic.”
Scientists predict that the avian flu will be found in birds in North America by this coming fall, Ms. Lear said.
While praising federal officials for addressing the flu pandemic issue, Ms. Lear worried that the jargon-filled guidance about planning will be confusing to parents and teachers.
“I think that language is not even going to connect to a superintendent,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2006 edition of Education Week as Schools Have Role in Federal Flu Plan