Swine flu puts schools on alert

1st May 2009 at 01:00
Devon secondary closed for week after girl, 12, who visited Mexico is diagnosed with the virus

Schools were on the frontline as Britain battled to counter the threat of a global swine flu epidemic, as The TES went to press.

On Wednesday morning, heads up and down the country received a Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) email highlighting guidance on what to do if the crisis worsens. Two hours later, Paignton Community College in Devon faced emergency evacuation after a pupil contracted the virus.

Anti-viral medicines were distributed to 230 pupils and the school closed for a week after the 12-year-old was confirmed as having swine flu. Pupils were told after the Prime Minister announced three new confirmed cases in the House of Commons.

The girl was on the same flight from Mexico as the Scottish couple who were diagnosed with the virus. At the time of going to press she was reported to be "doing fine".

Lisa Walton, 36, who has two sons, Liam and Jack, at the Paignton school, said: "We just had no idea about what was happening here. The school had not told us about it, and my son said the pupils were told at around 1pm."

The DCSF guidelines (see panel, above) set out possible action if a global pandemic is confirmed and cases appear in the UK.

Subject to the impact of the pandemic, the Government may recommend that schools and childcare settings close when the first cases are confirmed in the area and that they remain shut until the local epidemic is over.

The advice to close schools is linked to evidence that viruses spread particularly rapidly in them.

If schools and early years childcare facilities shut, the DCSF issued advice about how schools could help pupils carry on learning in November 2008. These include broadcasting educational programmes and advising parents what can be taught at home.

Pupils' work could be delivered by email or post. If there was disruption of the post, then collection points in libraries or town halls could be arranged.

Chris Davis, spokesman for the National Primary Headteachers' Association, said teachers should balance the need to discuss the situation with pupils with the risk of creating anxiety.

"I think heads have to play it by ear and gauge what the mood is in their school," he said. "It may be wise, perhaps, to mention in assembly, and explain it is not something that concerns us immediately, but if it spreads, then doctors would be telling us what to do.

"Handle it carefully, thoughtfully, in discussion with staff, so everybody is singing from the same hymn-sheet."

Taking precautions

If a pandemic arises, advice on closures would be issued regionally. Meanwhile:

  • Schools should plan to remain open and for possible closure.
  • They should have written plans that make it clear who would take the decision whether to close a school. It would normally be the headteacher.
  • They should ensure they have up-to-date contact details for all staff and parents.
  • Schools should ensure they can keep a sick child separate from other pupils, and minimise contact with staff, until they can be taken home or collected by a parent.
  • They should ensure they are able to stay open if appropriate, and have systems to minimise the spread of infection, such as hand-washing, disposal of tissues, etc.
  • If the World Health Organisation says a pandemic is imminent, local authorities will contact schools to give official notice of this, and plans should be reviewed.
  • At this stage, schools should check whether they have necessary supplies and remind staff not to come in if they have any symptoms.
  • If a school closes, the authority has a duty to provide education for children who are out of school. Schools could remain open to staff, who could set and mark work.
  • Local authorities will advise schools when they can re-open and if special conditions should apply.


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