ATLANTA – 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.
The government has created checklists on preparation and response steps, specialized for preschools, grade schools, high schools and colleges. The dominant theme is the need for coordination among local, state and federal officials.
Some of the advice is common sense, like urging students to wash their hands and cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze to keep infection from spreading. Other steps would take schools considerable time to figure out, such as legal and communication issues.
"I don't think that the issue of bird flu has resonated yet," said Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, which represents many of the country's teachers.
Weaver praised the federal government for providing guidance that can be plugged into a school district's crisis plan. But the sudden urgency on bird flu, he said, should not steal attention from the daily struggles schools face, like trying to keep their classrooms safe.
Children age 5 to 18 tend to be the biggest spreaders of flu viruses in the community, experts say. Schools may be ordered to close to prevent spreading the disease.
In Massachusetts, school administrators are considering using an automated phone bank to announce homework assignments and update parents. Another plan would use the Internet for communication between students and their teachers.
But those plans are limited, and many places have had budget cuts in technology, said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. "I don't think we're anywhere near having a systemic way of approaching this," he said.
Any school closing may not be for only a day or two. A shutdown would probably have to last a month or longer to be effective, said flu specialist Ira Longini, a faculty member at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.
"The school itself plays a big role," said Longini. "It's just a massive mixing ground for respiratory illness."
At the college level, the American Council on Education, a higher education umbrella group, has alerted thousands of college presidents about the need to prepare for bird flu.
Federal health leaders have advised each college to establish a pandemic response team and plan for outbreak scenarios that could close or quarantine their campuses.