UAE schools set own swine flu policies

With no direction from federal authorities, administrators put together individual plans for how best to avoid a possible outbreak.

Students at Philippine National School wait their turn yesterday as school nurse Rowena Valera, left, checks the temperature of each child before they enter the classroom.
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ABU DHABI // In the absence of a federal plan to deal with a possible outbreak of swine flu in schools, most private school administrators have created their own contingency plans that vary from late term starts to hygiene campaigns.

"We haven't received any directives from the authorities. We've forged ahead with our own policies," said Clive Pierrepont, the director of communications and marketing at Taaleem, which operates eight schools in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Taaleem has issued personal hygiene directives to students, but its schools will start on schedule and remain open in all but the most "extreme circumstances". Mr Pierrepont said the company did not see any reason to delay the start of the term.

But at least three private establishments have postponed the start of school out of concern about a possible outbreak of the H1N1 virus. "We wanted them to be at home first, so that they could stay in a quarantined area," said Geronimo Oboab, the principal of the Pisco private school in Abu Dhabi, which delayed the start of the new term by one week, from August 16 until August 23. Mr Oboab has instructed teachers at Pisco to send any students who appear sick to the school nurse who will take them to hospital if they show flu-like symptoms.

Al Mawakeb School, which has two branches in Dubai, has similarly pushed the start of the school year back by a week for children in kindergarten up to Grade Four. Administrators wrote to parents last week instructing them not to send sick children to school to help curb the possible spread of H1N1. Dr Ofelia Padilla, the principal of the Philippine National School in Abu Dhabi, which started the new term last Sunday, said her school was taking special precautions.

"For those who are coming from outside the country they need to have self-quarantine for 10 days," she said. The school has also been screening children each morning. "The educational authorities have not given us any instruction as of yet." Mr Pierrepont said parents at Taaleem schools had been advised to use their discretion in deciding whether their children were fit for school. Unless an emergency closure is announced, pupils are to report to class. The school has a plan should a case of swine flu emerge.

"We've done our homework and taken advice from medical experts," Mr Pierrepont said, describing Taaleem's plan as "cautionary but not over-reactive". He warned of "serious" consequences should authorities decide to delay the school year. "It just cuts down the time for the curricular activity. It must be made up in one shape or form; we could extend the school day or they would have to come in on the weekends."

For state schools, which are due to resume after Ramadan, postponing by a month would mean a two-month delay in the start of the school year. Federal authorities at the Ministry of Education have yet to announce how lost time will be made up for Ramadan delays. The American Community School (ACS) in Abu Dhabi started school on schedule on August 17. Its staff will attend training at the Abu Dhabi Education Council tomorrow.

With no directives in place from the Government, the school devised its own strategy, which included sending literature to parents about H1N1, having teachers on alert for ill pupils and devising a plan to deal with sick children. Dr George Robinson, the superintendent of the school, said if the Government opted to close schools for a month it would be "a major blow to the quality of education" at ACS.

"It would bring us down to our knees. One of the most critical things is how would you make up those days. If you take a whole month out where do you make it up? We're an IB diploma school," Dr Robinson said, adding that one of the reasons for the early start at ACS was to pack in more days before college-bound students take their IB [International Baccalaureate] exams in June. Global Education Management Systems, the largest private school operator in the UAE, decided to start the new term on schedule, but precautions are being taken. A committee of senior staff members was formed to draft a crisis management strategy to deal with any confirmed or or suspected cases of H1N1.

School principals and medical staff have been trained in preventive measures and symptoms of the flu, and the group has contacted parents about their plans and given them a brochure on H1N1. Dr Daniel Sistona, the principal of the Pioneers International Private School in Abu Dhabi, has taken a different approach his school is operating as normal. Since few students went home over the summer he did not see a need for precautionary measures.

Mercedis Avila, a mother of one, said the nurse at her daughter's school sent out weekly bulletins reassuring parents that the school was free of H1N1 and reminding them of symptoms to look out for. "My daughter went back last week and we have had lots of information from the school nurse so I am not worried," she said yesterday. "All the parents know what to look for, like coughing and fever, and not to send their child to school if they have the symptoms, so the risk is small." Mrs Avila teaches Spanish at ACS, where her five-year-old daughter Ester is a pupil. She said Ester and her schoolmates had all been taught basic hygiene tips such as how to wash their hands properly and to sneeze into their arms rather than their hands.

"I don't think people are worried," she said. "The children all know how to take care so as a teacher and parent I am fine about her being there."