During an Aug. 24 school visit, Duncan outlined education's response to the swine flu.
Schools and colleges should be ready with hard-copy packets and online lessons to keep learning going even if swine flu sickens large numbers of students this year, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Aug. 24.
Speaking at an elementary school on the first day of classes in Washington, D.C., Duncan released recommendations on how educators can ensure that instruction continues should the virus cause high absenteeism or school closings.
“As the school year begins, I’m concerned that the H1N1 virus might disrupt learning in some schools across the country,” he said.
Duncan said schools should evaluate what materials they have available for at-home learning. The latest guidance provides more details on methods that schools could use, such as distributing recorded classes on podcasts and DVDs; creating take-home packets with up to 12 weeks of printed class material; or holding live classes via video-conferencing calls or webinars.
Federal officials said earlier this month that schools should close only as a last resort. (See “Feds revise swine-flu guidance.”) They also advised that students and teachers can return to school or work 24 hours after their fever is gone; the old advice was to stay home for a week. The virus prompted more than 700 schools to close temporarily last spring.
Duncan was joined by U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and representatives from several technology companies and publishers, such as Apple, Microsoft, and Pearson, which are working with the Education Department to offer print and online resources–some of which could be available free of charge–to schools severely affected by swine flu.
The details are still being worked out, but the companies might offer technology to allow students and teachers to communicate virtually, provide published instructional material, and provide computer servers that can handle transferring large amounts of teaching material.
On Aug. 20, Duncan and Sebelius joined with Dr. Beth Bell, deputy director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to announce new guidance for higher-education institutions to plan for and respond to the upcoming flu season.
Government officials are especially concerned about the impact of H1N1 in schools, because the virus appears to spread quickly among younger Americans. The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recently found that younger Americans, specifically those ages six months to 24 years, are one of the top priority groups when it comes to the new H1N1 vaccine.
“We can all work to keep ourselves healthy now by practicing prevention, close monitoring, and using common sense,” Duncan said. “We know that some students may be affected by H1N1. Our top priority is making sure that they have a way to get well, stay well, and keep learning.”
Sebelius stressed the importance of using innovative communications strategies to reach out to students who are most at risk for H1N1 flu, and she highlighted new social media tools and online toolkits that have been created to help faculty, staff, and students at colleges and universities.
“The H1N1 flu appears to be impacting a group of people who not only aren’t used to getting serious cases of the flu but are not used to getting flu shots,” said Sebelius.
“They are also people who get their information in different ways and places than public health information has traditionally been given out. It is imperative that the public and private sector work together to reach students with critical information about the flu and teach them what to do when the flu hits their dorm room, fraternity house, or campus classroom.”
HHS created a special toolkit for administrators and students, as well some badges and widgets that can be used on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to help spread the word about swine-flu prevention.
The new guidance suggests that the most important actions institutions can take are to encourage and facilitate good hand washing and covering coughs and sneezes; encourage flu vaccination for recommended groups when vaccine becomes available; and separate sick people from well people as soon as possible.
Federal officials commented on the need for different institutions to tailor the strategies to their own unique circumstances, based on their location, student population, resources, and information from local health officials about the severity and spread of flu in their area–and schools are encouraged to partner with local health officials and others in their community to plan for the upcoming flu season.
Sebelius said clinical trials of the swine flu vaccine “look good,” and it could possibly be administered by mid-October.
“We anticipate using schools as partners to make sure that we reach out to kids who are a priority population to get the vaccination,” she said.
H1N1 K-12 toolkit
H1N1 Higher Education toolkit
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