Editorial - Long holiday may just have got even longer

24th July 2009 at 01:00
Teachers are powerless in face of pandemic, but official advice must have absolute clarity

Swine flu. Not the two words most teachers traditionally expect to have ringing in their ears as they leave for their annual summer break. It makes a change from "chill out", "happy holidays" or "large vodka", but not a pleasant one. Unfortunately for the profession, just as it was mentally filing away last term, everyone wants to talk about the one starting in September.

As the H1N1 virus has multiplied, it has become obvious that children are particularly vulnerable. Sixty per cent of those who have been infected by the virus are under 18. By this week, 652 children had been hospitalised; 53 of those were in intensive care. An unlucky few will die.

Children are mini and mobile germ laboratories, or "super-spreaders", as the current brutal nomenclature terms them. Schools are therefore prime disease incubators. By the end of term, more than 1,000 of them in Wales and England had reported cases; 130 of them had been closed. Given the raw statistics, it is understandable that health authorities are considering the option of wholesale school closures in the autumn.

Wales has been less badly affected than England, with the West Midlands and London being particularly hard hit. But it is the way swine flu has spread in Scotland that has led health authorities to seriously consider closing schools. The early break for summer there seems to have reduced the spread of the disease. Researchers believe that early and prolonged school closures in the rest of the country could reduce infection rates by 40 per cent.

History suggests they may have a point. Previous pandemics in other countries do seem to have been curtailed when schools were shut - if closure happened before the spread of the infection peaked (see page 6). Dr Tony Jewell, Wales's chief medical officer, has advised that localised closure of schools could be necessary if the circumstances warrant it. But there are significant downsides. Keeping children at home would reduce the health workforce by an estimated 30 per cent as they in turn would be forced to look after their unoccupied kids. But mass closures would be highly disruptive, and when would schools be able to open again, given that swine flu is likely to be around for many months?

Both Cardiff and Westminster have said they will assess the situation over the summer and give more detailed advice to schools soon. When it comes, that advice should avoid the mixed messages certain airlines managed to convey recently. Teachers should be immunised as a priority when a vaccine becomes available and heads should be given a clear and unambiguous steer by health authorities. Many parents will in any event keep their children at home.

Above all, it's important to keep a sense of proportion. In a bad year, 20,000 people die from flu in the UK. Most fatalities so far have had underlying health problems. There is little evidence of that changing. And what can teachers do about it? Absolutely nothing. Enjoy your holiday - it could be a long one.

Gerard Kelly, Editor; E: gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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