A pandemic will strike New Zealand and schools need to be preparing for it now, the Ministry of Education's pandemic planning manager said today.
Graeme Marshall told the annual meeting of the New Zealand Education Institute there was a high risk of bird flu becoming a pandemic that would strike New Zealand, and it could kill between 30-50,000 people.
"We will get a pandemic at some stage. It's not a question of if, it's a question of when. However, there's no need to panic because an awful lot of us won't die. Something over four million (New Zealanders) won't die."
Not panicking was imperative. People needed to remember the pandemic would pass and life would go on, Mr Marshall said.
As government representatives, school staff needed to reflect on how the best of a bad situation could be achieved.
"It is unlikely that communities will thank us if we metaphorically head for the hills," he said.
In preparation for the pandemic schools needed to keep up to date contact lists and teachers should be actively encouraging children to wash their hands properly and blow their noses correctly.
When a pandemic struck teachers needed to provide as full a service as possible for as long as possible to keep things as near to normal as they could, Mr Marshall said.
"I think it will be the sharpest test on our management skills.
"The issue will be monitoring safe and healthy working environments."
Prohibiting students from attending schools was one way medical officers of health might try to stop the spread of infection, he said. Sick students may also be sent home by principals.
Correspondence schooling should be organised for those students, Mr Marshall said.
Staff themselves would need to be monitored for signs of sickness, and schools needed to be prepared for up to 50 per cent fewer staff at the height of a pandemic.
"You must be sure to stay home when you're sick. "
Every school should have an action plan in place and individuals should have an emergency kit of medication and food in their own homes, he said.
The Ministry of Health has outlined five stages of a pandemic management strategy. New Zealand is at stage one, the planning stage.
The last major pandemic was the Spanish flu, which hit New Zealand in 1918 and killed 8600 people.