Because I don’t have enough to worry about these days lately, I’ve been (finally) pretty worried about the swine flu.
I haven’t thought about it too much all this time—in general, I’m wary when the media over dramatizes something like a flu outbreak. Not because I want to keep my head in the sand, but because I’m never sure whether or not I should be just plain worried, or worried-bordering-on-hysterical, or ignorantly complacent, so I tend to distance myself until I can figure things out for myself. Now, with the school year underway and work and commitments piling upon me, I'm less afraid of the flu's potential to kill me, and more afraid of its potential to completely turn our lives upside down.
This news got me worried. That and the fact that people in Europe (according to my parents who were there this summer) are VERY worried, and a recent visit to the Maryland/DC area proved to me that people in the nation’s capital are also very worried, even if there’s not much in the news about it around these parts.
As a college teacher, I've been worried specifically about what an outbreak on a college campus could do. It’s one thing to go back and forth to work and to feel assured that because none of your co-workers are sick you’re probably okay, too, and quite another to interact with sixty plus students/a day—many of whom have also been exposed to double or triple that number on a daily basis. Then there’s the sometimes constant stream of students in and out of my office, and the papers (sneezed on?) I handle every day, and the door knobs I touch, and the soon-to-be overheated classrooms, and the crowded dorms, and I’m starting to feel very Monk-like in my germaphobic approach to things these days. Plus, remember I have TWO kids in elementary school this year.
I’ve talked with some colleagues at different colleges around the country and heard many different takes on how to deal with student illness and attempts to prevent a swine flu outbreak. Some have started out their semester giving students blanket permission to miss class if they experience any flu symptoms; others are providing mini information sessions in their classes on swine flu prevention and health care on campus. Others have written up instructions regarding class attendance and absences into their course syllabi; some faculty at other campuses have been told to suspend attendance-taking for this year. My approach has been to spend about ten minutes out of class time during this week of classes talking with my students about good hygiene and my own personal policy regarding flu symptoms and class time (don't come to class if you are running a fever. Go DIRECTLY to the campus nurse and don't bring me a note until you are BETTER).
I was surprised to discover that many students weren't even certain what flu symptoms felt like (fever, aches and pains, runny nose) and many were surprised to find out that no, I certainly did not want them in class if they felt chills, nor would I give them extra credit for bravely sitting through freshman comp with a fever of 102. One or two seemed also surprised to find out that you need to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds in order to get any benefit at all from the soap. One student told me he's heard of swine flu parties, where people hope to be exposed to a milder form of the virus, so they can ward off a more serious form this winter. None of this information is helping me feel more at ease.
No doubt some of my students will take advantage of swine flu concerns and use imagined flu symptoms as an excuse to miss class, but there doesn't seem to be any real way to police this. As far as I'm concerned, better safe than sorry--no one wants to get the swine flu I'm sure, but as a busy parent and teacher, I know I sure don't.