Recommendations and Sample Communications

Here are five recommendations for communicating about this health emergency, courtesy of NSPRA.

Recommendation 1:

Coordinate messages with other community agencies, particularly your local health department, to raise awareness of this community issue that may affect your schools. Meet with your county health department contacts and school health coordinator or specialist to develop a local communication plan to address swine flu that links local stakeholders to credible health sources.

Please note the following links to information about swine flu:

The following CDC links provide more specific prevention information:

Recommendation 2:
Provide information and updates about swine flu to key internal staff, including frontline custodians, secretaries, principals, teachers, so they are aware of plans and key messages for your community. Possible steps include the following:

  • Provide links to resources and information for principals on your internal or external website. (See list above.)
  • Remind staff to stay home if they are ill.
  • Remind parents to keep children home if they are ill.
  • Develop a joint information meeting for your staff with your health/safety officer, health specialist and/or local health department’s communicable disease division.
  • Review protocols with custodial and maintenance staff to ensure preventive cleaning measures and to raise their awareness and their role in prevention.
  • Review preventive protocols (i.e., cover your cough, sneeze etiquette, regular hand washing) with teachers and students.

Here is an example e-mail sent to staff on April 27 by the Los Angeles County Office of Education, shared with NSPRA by Frank Kwan, director of communications for LACOE:

Hello Everyone,

Advising that LACOE is continuing to work with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health regarding swine influenza. There have been no confirmed cases in the County, but Public Health officials are monitoring the situation carefully.  LACOE will pass along updates as they are received from Public Health and other authorities.

As you probably have heard by now via news reports, the virus has effected the following locations: San Diego, New York, Texas, New Zealand, Australia and Mexico.

LACOE is sending you the attached "Cover Your Cough" flyer for use at all schools. It is recommended for posting in restrooms, hallways and classrooms as a reminder to faculty and students.

For additional information from the County Department of Public Health, visit their website at:
http://www.lapublichealth.org

In addition, the CDE has prevention information on their website at:
http://www.cde.ca.gov/ls/he/hn/fluinfo.asp

http://www.cde.ca.gov/nr/av/mm/yr03mm.asp#pos

Additional information from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can be found at:
http://www.cdc.gov/swineflu/

Recommendation 3:
Communicate proactively to your community to assure them that school officials are aware of the issue, whether you have any cases of swine flu or not. Possible steps include the following:

  • Post links to credible health information on your district and school web sites.
  • Provide principals with brief Q and A articles about the swine flu for their regular newsletters to parents.
  • Discuss with local health officials the possibility of sending information letters home with students. The letters would provide general information about the swine flu and include details about how local school and local health officials are working to address the issue.
  • If you decide to send letters home, use available voice mail messaging systems and e-mail alert lists to notify parents.

Here is a basic sample letter for communicating about a health emergency.

Dear Parents and Guardians:

As you may already know, an outbreak of swine flu has caused the U.S. to issue a public health emergency. Although we do not have any known cases in our area (or other appropriate detail about current status in your area), we are doing everything possible to protect the health of our students and limit the spread of swine flu.

(Explain the local situation and the steps that are being taken.)

Our school (and district) nurses are staying informed and monitoring the situation every day.

I have attached some information about swine flu. If you would like more information, you can call (County Health, Community Information and Referral, etc.).

Let me assure you that the health and well-being of our students is our top priority and we are doing everything possible to address the situation. Please feel free to contact my office if you have any questions or concerns.

Sincerely,

Principal

Recommendation 4:
Prepare for media calls by developing key talking points in advance. Share those talking points with other staff to ensure that your district speaks with one clear voice about swine flu precautions and response protocols.  

Here are some sample talking points that could be sent via e-mail to principals and other frontline staff to provide a consistent message across the district:

Below is information from XYZ School District that can be shared with parents or others who call with concerns about a swine flu outbreak. Specific questions should be referred to the health department or school nurse.

So far XX School District has taken a number of precautionary measures:

  • We posted links to information about swine flu on our web site.
  • We posted helpful tips about swine flu on Cable Channel XX, with an emphasis on good hygiene to prevent infection.
  • We provided principals with facts and steps to prevent outbreaks.

XX School District routinely works with the County Health Department to monitor illnesses to look for trends and determine when specific local responses to significant increases in illness are required.  

Here are sample talking points about the swine flu emergency from Rick Kaufman, APR, executive director of community relations for the Bloomington (Minn.) Public Schools. These could be tailored to your area and used as part of a letter home or voice notification message. They could also be used with area media.

April 27, 2009

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported 40 cases of swine influenza A (H1N1) virus infection in five U.S. states. So far, no confirmed or suspected cases have been detected in Minnesota.
  • Minnesota Department of Health officials are reminding people to observe routine public health recommendations for preventing the spread of the flu:
    • Keep your child home from school if they are sick, and contact a health physician if the child exhibits flu-like symptoms.
    • Instruct children to cover their mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It may prevent those around your child from getting sick.
    • Avoid close contact with people who are sick. When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too.
    • Wash hands frequently to protect against germs. Wash with soap and water, or clean with alcohol-based hand cleaner.
    • Avoid touching eyes, nose or mouth. Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose or mouth.
    • Practice other good health habits. Keep yourself strong – and more resistant to disease – by getting plenty of sleep, staying physically active, managing stress, drinking plenty of fluids and eating nutritious food.
  • Please check the CDC web site (http://www.cdc.gov/swineflu/ ) frequently for updates and revised recommendations.

Additional talking points from Kaufman:

  • CDC and state public health systems are urging schools to notify parents/community to observe routine public health recommendations for preventing the spread of flu; and provide steps in the event they suspect their child is exhibiting flu-like symptoms, and where to go for more info.
  • We believe it is important to bring staff up-to-speed and to encourage them to communicate to students the importance of routine safe health standards (e.g. washing hands, cover mouth, etc.)
  • The overall concern for schools is the fact students may have gone to Mexico over spring break, which started in late March and continues through this month in some areas. A private school in New York is reportedly closed today and tomorrow due to members of its senior class that recently returned from Mexico, and exhibiting symptoms of the flu.  

Recommendation 5:
While this current outbreak of swine flu has not reached the level of a “pandemic flu” outbreak, the new virus is causing concern because of the potential it represents. Plan for potential pandemic flu and/or update your current pandemic plan based on emerging information.

At his 2007 NSPRA session in Phoenix, Ariz., Frank Kwan, director of communications for the Los Angeles County Office of Education, highlighted many online resources to use in pandemic planning. The http://www.ReadyCaSchools.org/ site includes a streaming video, a tabletop exercise, and links to other tools. Although the site is state-specific, much of the content is applicable across state lines. Other states have also developed sites, so check with your state department of education. These additional sites provide resources for pandemic planning:

For Kwan’s PowerPoint slides outlining historic pandemics and other information, click here

In recent years, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that a substantial risk of an influenza pandemic exists. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that in the U.S. alone, an influenza pandemic could infect up to 200 million people and cause between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths. A pandemic outbreak could jeopardize essential community services by causing high levels of absenteeism (up to 35%) in critical positions in every workforce. The best protection against pandemic influenza — a vaccine that is well matched to the virus-causing illness — is not likely to be available at the outset of a pandemic.

During an influenza pandemic, your school district must work with local, state, and federal agencies to:

  • Limit the number of illnesses and deaths
  • Preserve continuity of essential school functions
  • Minimize educational and social disruption
  • Minimize academic and economic losses

Schools will be disrupted during a pandemic. Mitigation guidelines issued by the CDC include closing schools to reduce contact between people. It is prudent to plan for school closures that may last from several weeks to up to 3 months.

Additional information about preparing for a potential pandemic, including the phases for pandemic classification system used, is available in NSPRA’s Complete Crisis Communication Management Manual, 3rd Edition.