Flu Crisis Demands Uniform School Policy
As of Friday morning, high rates of absences among students and teachers displaying H1N1 (so) flu-like symptoms had led to the closing of 24 schools in Queens. One death, that of Mitchell Wiener, assistant principal at I.S. 238, Hollis has been attributed to H1N1, popularly known as swine flu. Over the Memorial Day weekend, reports of a second death attributable to H1N1 appeared; this time, the victim was a woman in her 50s and also a resident of Queens. Mayor Michael Bloomberg stated publicly that she did not work in a school.
I.S. 238 is the only school with currently diagnosed cases of H1N1 flu. Teachers were scheduled to return to the building on Friday; students were due back in class on Tuesday, May 26. Some of the 23 other public, private and parochial schools reopened on May 22, others, like I.S. 238, opened their doors to students yesterday, May 26. Reopening dates for still others have not yet been set. Paradoxically, some schools appear to be marked for closing for no reason apparent to teachers, administrators or the parents of the children attending the schools in question while others are being kept open despite the fact that in these particular schools, students and teachers are calling in sick, students are reporting to school nurses en masse and in at least one case, substitutes for the ailing teachers are refusing to come to the school.
According to statements from the Department of Education, the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and on several occasions by both agencies together, the Health Department and the Department of Education together "assess the situation daily and make decisions regarding school closures on a case by case basis". Occurrences of flu-like illness in New York City schools are monitored and information collected daily from school administrators and evaluated by the city Office of School Health. If a school nurse reports a sudden or sustained increase in flu-like illness- documented fever accompanied by cough or sore throat- among students seen in a school's medical room, the Health Department may recommend closing the school, according to a joint release from the Health and Education Departments. "Some schools will experience temporary closures in the coming days and weeks. Rather than using a simple rule to close schools, the Health Department is carefully evaluating the circumstances at each one. High absenteeism, by itself, is not a basis for closure," the release goes on.
We do not doubt that the Health and Education Departments are, indeed, carefully evaluating the circumstances at each school. We know that dedicated medical personnel and educators in both departments are doing their best to keep abreast of the situation and trying to find the best course that will maintain safe, healthful conditions for students, teachers administrators, parents and everyone else concerned. We applaud these efforts.
However, given the fact that some schools are being closed and others kept open despite the pleas of administrators, parents and teachers, the Education and Health Departments' policy of "carefully evaluating the circumstances at each [school]" and employing the phrase and philosophy of "case by case basis" is causing us considerable unease. A public health problem in a school system responsible for more than 1,100 school buildings and more than 1 million students cannot successfully be addressed on a case-by-case basis. A generalized protocol for anticipating the unexpected seems to offer a better chance for a successful outcome in the event of a crisis. "Case-bycase" in this instance, seems to us to mean "making this up as we go along".
No person or bureaucracy is omniscient and we know that not every natural or man-made disaster can be planned for. It seems to us incongruous, to say the least, though, for a protocol to be in place to close schools if a blizzard strikes New York City, but not for such a protocol to be in place to deal with an epidemic of an apparently highly contagious disease. It seems to us at the very least unwise on the part of the Departments of Education and Health not to have had some sort of plan in place that could be adapted to meet the H1N1 crisis. Closing all schools immediately and subjecting them to rigorous and thorough disinfecting, then reopening them all at once seems to us a far better way of dealing with this virus than subjecting parents, children, teachers, administrators and everyone else to apparently random closings and openings. A school with 30 out of 50 teachers and a third of its 747 students absent and substitute teachers refusing requests to come in while another school nearby is closed after only a few reported cases of flu-like symptoms seems to us more than a little incongruous. Parents who must find care for their children when schools are closed, students who want to learn, some of whom need these last few weeks of school to complete coursework to move to the next grade or graduate, teachers who want to make sure their students will go home for the summer with all requirements for completing the grade or the course met, deserve a policy of schools kept closed or open on a uniform, citywide basis.