During the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, Australian public health officials closed schools as a strategy to mitigate the spread of the infection. This article examines school communities’ understanding of, and participation in, school closures and the beliefs and values which underpinned school responses to the closures.
We interviewed four school principals, 25 staff, 14 parents and 13 students in five schools in one Australian city which were either fully or partially closed during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.
Drawing on Thompson et al’s ethical framework for pandemic planning, we show that considerable variation existed between and within schools in their attention to ethical processes and values. In all schools, health officials and school leaders were strongly committed to providing high quality care for members of the school community. There was variation in the extent to which information was shared openly and transparently, the degree to which school community members considered themselves participants in decision-making, and the responsiveness of decision-makers to the changing situation. Reservations were expressed about the need for closures and quarantine and there was a lack of understanding of the rationale for the closures. All schools displayed a strong duty of care toward those in need, although school communities had a broader view of care than that of the public health officials. Similarly, there was a clear understanding of and commitment to protect the public from harm and to demonstrate responsible stewardship.
We conclude that school closures during an influenza pandemic represent both a challenge for public health officials and a litmus test for the level of trust in public officials, government and the school as institution. In our study, trust was the foundation upon which effective responses to the school closure were built. Trust relations within the school were the basis on which different values and beliefs were used to develop and justify the practices and strategies in response to the pandemic.