How snap decisions averted flu spread

8th May 2009 at 01:00
Head of first school hit by virus on her plan to deal with changing circumstances

"We knew we had to get it right, big time," says Jane English, principal of Paignton Community and Sports College, the first school to close in England due to swine flu.

Miss English and her chair of governors decided to shut the 1,900-pupil school on Wednesday April 29, hours after hearing that a pupil who had been taken ill two weeks ago had been diagnosed with the disease.

As The TES went to press on Wednesday, a nursery and four other schools were also shut.

For Miss English, the prime concern was the health of her pupils - and preventing the spread of the virus to the wider community.

The school's emergency plan was a starting point, but she said: "After the first read, I decided to place it on one side and engage with common sense.

"We've had meningitis on site and an outbreak of norovirus in which loads of people were off. Nothing really fazes us."

As soon as Miss English was informed about the outbreak by the Health Protection Agency, she held conference calls with health officials, emergency services and Torbay Council during which it was agreed that stocks of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu would be delivered, the school would be closed, parents informed and health advice given.

Assemblies were held to brief pupils. Parents were told and letters sent home.

There has been criticism that pupils and parents were not informed until after Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary, told Parliament that a 12-year- old girl from Paignton had the virus.

But Miss English said: "It would have been ridiculous to say something really serious has happened, but I'll come back in an hour to tell you what we're going to do. That would have been poor leadership.

"I was adamant that I wanted no child who was at risk to leave the premises without Tamiflu."

Health professionals attended to reassure parents, and the police managed traffic as parents and press arrived. Miss English said: "The media can be a damn nuisance. Someone persuaded two old dears to put on masks and they flogged the picture. That is irresponsible.

"But they can also be useful. People thought the pupil (who was diagnosed with swine flu) had been in school while waiting for the test results. I was able to clarify at a press conference that she had not."

Some pupils had been due to take their French oral exams when the school closed. The exam board agreed that pupils would be given a mark based on the rest of the exam.

But, with hindsight, Miss English feels more could have been done to help younger pupils learn at home.

She was also unprepared for local schools sending home the children of her staff, or two cases where parents with children at other schools were banned from them.

The school will reopen on Monday. The Health Protection Agency was coming in to reassure Year 7 that there was no risk from the flu victim, Miss English said.

Exam disruption

Pupils at schools hit by swine flu could get grades without sitting their exams under emergency plans being considered by exam boards.

GCSE exams began across the UK last week, with some OCR board's language exams due to take place on Monday.

Schools hit by the virus have been rescheduling exams or asking for special consideration for GCSE and A-level pupils.

Ofqual, the exams regulator, was due to hold a meeting on Thursday to discuss the situation.

It is understood that pupils could sit exams elsewhere, or if they are sick with swine flu, they could be awarded a grade based on papers or coursework they have already completed.

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