Tuesday, May 01, 2007

United States : Pandemic Impact On Local Schools Examined

Lots Of Questions, But Few Answers

A local meeting of school officials, community leaders and parents in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, aimed to examine the local impact of US government guidelines that schools will have to be closed down for eight to twelve weeks during outbreaks of pandemic bird flu.

Actually sitting down and discussing the effects of school closures on students, parents and the local communities throws a harsh and disturbing light on just how improbable such plans to stem the spread of pandemic bird flu actually are.

The US government, and state governments, may demand school closures, but actually doing will create a vast array of logistical problems, severe economic impacts and even the breakdown of local communities.

Finding and reading local newspaper reports, like the one excerpted below, reveal just how devastating the impact of a bird flu pandemic in the United States, and around the world, will actually turn out to be, and that's outside the huge death tolls and the large percentage of the population expected to fall seriously ill.

The plans to cope with pandemic bird flu are being examined on local levels now, but such meetings reveal just how completely unprepared communities are, and will probably remain for the next few years at least.

From AL.com :

Closing schools has been determined to be one of the best defenses to slow the spread of a flu outbreak, but the implications of long-term school closings are staggering. A flu outbreak of huge proportions would force school doors shut for weeks, if not months.

School administrators, health officials, law enforcement officers and business executives gathered recently to discuss how to handle closing schools for such an extended time. They also received a lesson on the realities of a flu pandemic.

One scenario being discussed is a widespread outbreak that comes in three waves, each lasting eight weeks. That's more than half a year.

"The cycle we depend on to work would be completely disrupted," said Andy Rucks, an associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham's School of Public Health.

Rucks, who works with the South Central Public Health Partnership, led the tabletop exercise on school closings as a way to counter pandemic influenza. He and others are conducting similar exercises across the state.

"It could disrupt the school-year cycle permanently, so much that we will have to rethink how graduation or education will continue to work," Rucks said.

With kindergarten through 12th grades closed indefinitely, the balance of the community work force and life would come unhinged. Schools, after all, provide a form of day care for working parents.

From there the effects would spiral. Without a full work force, the local economy would be disrupted.

The federal government has urged everyone from individuals to businesses to establish detailed pandemic flu preparedness plans.

The Alabama Department of Education began working with the state Department of Public Health in February 2006 to create awareness about bird flu and start drafting a plan, should the illness become a reality here.

Closing schools for occurrences such as inclement weather is significantly different from closing them in the case of a pandemic. Once the weather event is over, schools typically reopen. But with widespread illness possibly affecting teachers, students and bus drivers, the impact would go beyond a few days.

The questions ran the gamut:

_How would students still receive an education during that time?

_Would teachers and staff be paid?

_How would students who receive free or reduced lunch be fed?

_Would latchkey children become the overwhelming norm? Or would parents have to take off work to stay at home with their child?

Answers, however, were limited.

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