Schools Told to Prepare for Bird Flu

The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 22, 2006; 7:48 AM

WASHINGTON -- The nation's schools, recognized incubators of respiratory diseases among children, are being told to plan for the possibility of an outbreak of bird flu.

Federal health leaders say it is not alarmist or premature for schools to make preparations, such as finding ways to teach kids even if they've all been sent home.

School boards and superintendents have gotten used to emergency planning for student violence, terrorism or severe weather. Pandemic preparation, though, is a new one.

They have a lot to think over, top government officials said Tuesday.

Who coordinates decisions on closing schools or quarantining kids? If classes shut down for weeks, how will a district keep kids from falling behind? Who will keep the payroll running, or ease the fear of parents, or provide food to children who count on school meals?

"Those are the kinds of issues that I don't think people have spent a lot of time talking about yet," said Stephen Bounds, director of legal and policy services for the Maryland Association of School Boards.

"But if New Orleans and Katrina taught us nothing else, it taught us you need to be thinking about things ahead of time _ and preparing for the worst," Bounds said.

The urgency is about bird flu, the name for the deadly H5N1 strain of the avian flu.

It remains primarily a contagious bird disease. Typically spread from direct contact with contaminated birds, it has infected more than 170 people and killed roughly 100. None of those cases occurred in the United States, but officials say bird flu is likely to arrive this year in birds.

As outbreaks have hit Africa, Asia and Europe, officials have launched campaigns to educate the public. To help stop the spread of the disease, farmers have killed tens of millions of chickens and turkeys.

Experts fear the virus could change into a form that passes easily among people.

In North Carolina on Tuesday, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings joined Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt to encourage schools to prepare. Spellings said schools must be aware that they may have to close their buildings _ or that their schools may need to be used as makeshift hospitals, quarantine sites or vaccination centers.