How schools will cope if bird flu strikes

21st November 2008 at 00:00
Advice issued to schools on the best way to proceed during a pandemic

Imagine, not only are you at home feeling sick, but instead of Good Morning with Phil and Fern, the telly is showing government-approved educational programmes. It's enough to make you go back to work - except you can't because the school is shut on account of a bird flu pandemic.

Guidance issued this month on what schools could do to help pupils carry on learning during such an emergency reveals that the department is in talks with broadcasters about such a move - just one of a host of plans to make sure the education system does not grind to a halt.

If the flu pandemic - which is considered inevitable, although not necessarily imminent - occurs after the digital roll-out in 2012, an entire channel could be dedicated to educational programmes, just as Teachers TV is at present.

Pandemic flu occurs when a new influenza virus emerges to which people have little or no immunity. It can spread very quickly.

The latest alert is caused by the emergence of a new form of the bird flu virus H5N1, which can pass from birds to humans but cannot yet pass between humans.

It is estimated that about 25-50 per cent of the population could be infected over the course of potentially multiple waves of the illness, each lasting three to four months. It is estimated that between 50,000 and 750,000 people could die.

Similar guidance in 2006 made it clear that while most sectors are expected to carry on as normal, schools and childcare settings are potential "spreaders" of infections and would be likely to close as a preventive measure.

The new guidance makes clear that neither staff nor children would be expected to work if they were ill. But for the rest, local authorities must "ensure a reasonable level of education".

The television programmes being discussed are one way of providing resources for homebound pupils, but schools could also give guidance to parents - particularly of younger children - on the curriculum and what can be taught at home.

Schools would need to get work to and from students, which could be done by email. But the postal service is expected to work, and collection points in libraries or town halls could be arranged.

Schools need to check how many children have internet access at home, and that they have up-to-date contact details for pupils.

John Gawthorpe, head of Mayhill Junior in Odiham, Hampshire, is preparing a pandemic flu plan for his school.

He said: "It is one of those foreseeable eventualities where we ask ourselves, 'Do we know what we are supposed to do?'

"We can joke about it, but I think it is something we ignore at our peril. We do need to be ready, even though we hope it won't happen on our watch."

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