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Influenza (Flu) Information

Frequently Asked Questions

At the five Regional Pandemic Preparedness Summits held in May and June of 2006, questions that were raised by participants in the Primary and Secondary Education Breakout Sessions were recorded and compiled into the following list of Frequently Asked Questions with responses. Many of the questions and responses are still valid. This section will be updated on a regular basis.

A. The Closing of Schools

  1. Is it likely that schools will be closed in case of a pandemic?

    Answer: We do not yet know if any schools will be closed, or if so, for how long. Any decisions on school closings will be based on the best available public health information.

    The Departments of Public Health and Education will continue to work together and will keep local boards of health and local school officials informed of the latest developments.

  2. During any sort of infectious disease outbreak, does the local board of health have the authority to close a school where there are children who have been diagnosed with the disease causing the outbreak?

    Answer: Yes. Although there is no explicitly stated authority to close schools, the local board of health has broad authority to protect the public health under various laws. M.G.L. c. 111, § 104 provides that when a disease dangerous to public health exists in a town, the board of health shall "use all possible care to prevent the spread of the infection and may give public notice of infected places by such means as in their judgment may be most effectual for the common safety." M.G.L. c. 111, § 122 requires the board to "examine into all … causes of sickness within its town," and to "destroy, remove or prevent the same as the case may require …"

    Boards of health also recognize that local school officials have broad authority over the public schools. Under M.G.L. c. 71, § 59, the school superintendent has the responsibility to "manage the [school] system in a fashion consistent with state law and the policy determinations of the school committee." The school committee has "general charge and superintendence of the schoolhouses" under M.G.L. c. 71, § 68. In light of the important responsibilities that local health officials and local school officials have under state law, the board of health should work with the school superintendent and any staff members the superintendent designates, such as the school health director, to develop a plan for communications and school closings when necessary for the protection of public health. Such a plan will enable local officials to provide a safe and orderly response during an infectious disease outbreak in a school.

  3. Will the student learning time requirements be waived if schools are closed for an extended period in a public health emergency?

    Answer: The school committee and superintendent must operate the public schools for at least the minimum number of hours and days required by the state regulations on student learning time, 603 CMR 27.00, although they may request a waiver from the Commissioner and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education for good cause, including emergency circumstances that force the closing of one or more schools. If schools must close for an extended period of time in order to comply with a state of emergency declared by the Governor, the Commissioners of Public and Elementary and Secondary Education, it may be determined that a blanket waiver is warranted. Each case will depend on the specific facts presented.

  4. If schools must be closed for two or more weeks due to a public health emergency, will the teachers and other staff still be paid?

    Answer: Matters regarding staff compensation and work schedule changes will be governed by the applicable employment contract or collective bargaining agreement.

  5. What will be the impact on a school, if part or all of the building is required to be used as an alternate care site?

    Answer: If designation of a school building for emergency use is necessary and appropriate, the school district's emergency plan and local community's Emergency Operation Plan should specify how school buildings would be used as alternative sites during a state or local emergency, for housing, medical triage, food distribution or other emergency services. As such, school districts should prepare contingency plans (Continuity of Operation Plans) that outline how education services will be provided if one or more school buildings become unavailable for an extended period.

  6. Must schools be closed if a certain percentage of students and/or staff are absent?

    Answer: The decision on school closing is within the discretion of local school officials, except when the local boards of health or state officials declare that one or more schools must be closed due to a public health emergency. Local school officials may decide what level of staff and/or student absences would warrant closing a school or schools for a period of time, taking into account issues of safety and supervision as well as continuity of education.

B. Teaching and Learning

  1. If schools are closed for an extended period of time during a pandemic, what resources will be available as alternatives to classroom instruction?

    Answer: We advise school officials to do some prudent planning, particularly around Continuity of Operation Plans, but without incurring unnecessary expenses. The local planning could include, for example, the preparation of home study materials and expectations for students and parents, to be used in the event of an extended school closing. Home study materials may consist of textbooks and other educational resources for students to use at home, course syllabi, reading lists, sequential lessons and homework assignments for required academic courses, including English language arts, mathematics, social studies and science. Schools might also consider providing lessons on DVD/VHS for use at home or for broadcast on public access-TV with home teaching guides for parents.

  2. Is a public school required to provide educational services to a student who is out of school due to illness, isolation or quarantine at home or in the hospital?

    Answer: If a physician verifies in writing that a public school student (or a student who has been placed by the public school in a private setting) must remain at home or in a hospital for medical reasons for a period of not less than 14 school days in any school year, then under state regulation 603 CMR 28.03(3)(c), the school principal must arrange for provision of educational services to the student in the home or hospital. While the regulation does not require that the fourteen days be consecutive, it does require verification by a physician's written order. A question and answer guide on implementation of educational services in the home or hospital is available on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website. If a public health emergency compels a quarantine of many students for an extended period of time, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would encourage local school officials to explore distance learning options and other alternatives that could help the students keep up with their schoolwork.

C. Communication

  1. We want to be sure that we are receiving and sharing consistent and accurate information. Where can we get this information/guidance?

    Answer: The Influenza Information website was created to provide school administrators and the general public with consistent information related to schools. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will continue to work with the Department of Public Health and other agencies to update the website as new information becomes available.

  2. How do districts communicate effectively with their parents, staff, first responders and state agencies?

    Answer: Clear lines of communication are crucial to a successful response to a crisis. During the planning process, it will be important to establish effective lines of communication among and within state, district, school and community groups. Communication plans are essential before crises occur. When creating a preparedness plan, several communication needs should be addressed:

    1. Use common terminology across a district. Terminology should be the same across schools in a district. In most districts, there is a great deal of mobility from one school to another, for both staff and students. The use of consistent language is advised.

    2. Identify several modes of communication for both internal and external communication. Keep in mind that in times of crisis, computers, intercoms, telephones, and even cell phones may not work or may be dangerous to use. Plan for several methods of communication in a crisis.

    3. Make sure that schools have adequate supplies of communication gear and that appropriate individuals have access to it. One school's crisis plan, for example, calls for the principal to immediately grab a backpack containing a cell phone and a 6-10 walkie-talkie. Communication gear is of no use if no one can access it.

    4. Verify that school communication devices are compatible with emergency responder devices. A cell phone or two-way radio is of no use if it cannot be used with the emergency responder's phone or radio. Also, check to see that the school's communication devices do not interfere with the emergency responder's equipment.

    5. Create communication plans to notify families that a crisis has occurred at their child's school. These pathways should include several modes of communication, including notices sent home and phone trees, so the pathways can be tailored to fit the needs of a particular crisis. For example, it may be appropriate in some crises to send a notice home, while other crises require immediate parental notification. Use these pathways throughout the planning process to encourage parental input and support.

    6. Establish communication pathways with the community. This may be in the form of a phone or e-mail tree, a community liaison or media briefings. It is crucial to keep the community informed before, during, and after a crisis.

    7. Designate a public information officer (PIO) to deal with families, the community and the media. The designation of one individual will help all parties stay informed with consistent information.

    8. Provide information during the recovery phase. Communication often stops after a crisis subsides. However, during the recovery phase, keeping staff and community informed remains critical.

  3. How should the local media be involved in planning?

    Answer: Local media should be involved in planning to insure accurate and consistent communication to the public. Each school district should identify a public information officer to be the sole source of information. Local media can be used to keep the public informed and updated on the district's Preparedness and Continuity of Operation Plans in the event of pandemic influenza or other crisis.

D. Health and Well Being

  1. Can transmission of a communicable disease, such as mumps, be prevented if a non-immunized, asymptomatic child wears a surgical mask at school?

    Answer: The Department of Public Health advises that surgical masks are not a practical or effective way to prevent the spread of diseases from the respiratory route on an "8 hours per day, 5 days per week" (often for several days or weeks) basis. Any time a person removes the mask to eat, drink, cough, wipe or blow their nose, s/he is infectious or potentially infectious. In addition, because some of these diseases are spread by direct contact, any time a potentially infectious person touches his or her respiratory secretions and inanimate objects, the person could contaminate those objects, making them potential sources for transmission. Other factors that make surgical masks ineffective in these situations are the average person's lack of training in sterile technique as well as the age of some potentially infectious individuals.

  2. Will the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education supply masks, gloves and sanitizers to public schools?

    Answer: No. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education does not provide these types of supplies to school districts. For information on ways to limit the transmission of respiratory diseases such as influenza, please see the DPH Flu Facts website listed below.

Last Updated: January 10, 2013
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