Sunday, March 12, 2006

Homework time

The possibility of widespread community sickness in a bird flu pandemic is beginning to sink in. Not everywhere and certainly not with everyone. But some places.

I write this on an airplane just taken off from the Cincinnati - Northern Kentucky airport, one of Delta's hubs. (Don't worry. I'm using an approved electronic device.) The Cincinnati - Northern Kentucky schools, I read, are now beginning to think about what to do, using a plan drafted by the federal government and released to the each state's school districts through the Ohio and Kentucky School Boards (Cincinnati Enquirer). We've been critical of lack of government preparedness and they are late to the game. But this is what needs to be done. The problem's not solved, but it's a start.
"The plan is a good starting point because schools have to be prepared for this," said Ohio School Board Association spokesman Scott Ebright.

"Every school already has a crisis plan in place since 9/11, but there are so many unanswered questions school officials need to start thinking about because a pandemic would significantly affect every school district."

"If the pandemic happens, schools will have to be shut down and it is good to think about this in advance," said Hughes.


Some rural school systems already dealing with overcrowding, such as Little Miami schools in Warren County, may be more vulnerable to a deadly flu outbreak.

The district covers one of the largest areas in Ohio.

Little Miami spokeswoman Lisa Knodel said, "Being proactive is crucial for a district like ours since we are challenged with overcrowded conditions and communicating across our 98 square miles. While there is currently no pandemic flu, student safety is a top priority in everything we do."(Cincinnati Enquirer)
The US Department of Health and Human Services plan is meant to help school districts prepare and it contains the usual hand waving injunctions to establish "organizational structures" and "coordinate" with other agencies. I not also it suggests that schools might be used as hospitals when the usual medical facilities become overwhelmed. We'll repeat the suggestion we made in an earlier post about airport facilities. It makes much more sense to start talking now with the hotel and motel industry about using their rooms. Each has a bed and a bathroom and the bigger ones have their own laundries and kitchens. The industry is not averse to this. Some years ago I discussed this with the big hotel chains and they were very receptive. They understood that in an emergency they could be commandeered and they wanted to be in on the discussion from the outset. Schools, it seems to me, are much less suited to this task. As noted by Freddy the Shredder in the comments in an earlier post, hotels might also be able to get some revenue for filling otherwise empty rooms.

But that's a quibble. Other features of the plan are more interesting. It talks about devising alternative ways to instruct students, including mail, internet lessons or educational television. This would also require some policy decisions about credit, graduation requirements and a host of other issues and this is the time to start thinkit it through.

A particularly pressing issue is the other social functions schools perform besides instruction. For many poor students, the school lunch program is the only stable source of nutrition in their lives. They don't eat much on weekends. And of course school also serves as child care for working parents. The differential impact of school closings on special needs students and the poor need to be anticipated.

These problems are difficult but they can be ameliorated if we plan in advance and are committed to addressing them. The current draft plans don't go far to solving the problems a pandemic would bring to the school systems. But just starting the conversation is an enormous step forward.

Now it's time to do the homework.