St. Francis Prep takes stock one year later

Nurse Mary Pappas has been revered by groups around the nation for her work in helping sick students at St. Francis Prep during last year's swine flu outbreak. Photo by Christina Santucci

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By Ivan Pereira
Thursday, April 22, 2010

On April 23, 2009, students at St. Francis Prep High School began their day as usual. After more than a week off for Easter, the teenagers were back at work in their classrooms and some geared up for the school’s annual International Day festival at the end of the week.

By the end of the day, however, the student body and faculty of the city’s largest Catholic high school would be caught in the middle of the first major outbreak of swine flu in the United States, which sickened thousands across the nation and killed many victims, including one Queens public school administrator.

Despite the danger, the health emergency ultimately strengthened the campus’ spirit and set an example for other organizations caught up in the health crisis, according to administrators.

“Last year was an education for us,” Assistant Principal Pat McLaughlin said. “At the time there was no textbook on how to handle the situation.”

It began around 9:30 a.m. that Thursday morning, when the school’s nurse, Mary Pappas, a Prep alumna who had been working at the school since 2003, began to see an influx of students at her office complaining about having flu-like symptoms.

At first, she thought it was a simple bug because the first batch of teens came from one class, but soon dozens more started to line up outside her door.

“They looked really sick and really scared. It was not your usual ‘I want to get out of class’ look,” she said.

As the number of Pappas’ patients grew to more than 100, the nurse knew there was a serious problem and immediately called the city Department of Health for help. Before arriving at Prep, located at 6100 Francis Lewis Blvd., she had worked for the DOH as a public health nurse and visited public schools. She had good contacts at her former office, which included the supervising doctor for the department.

The department agreed to send experts to the school at her request to study the students’ symptoms and provide the school with assistance in treating the outbreak.

At the time, the H1N1 epidemic had not been documented in the United States, but Pappas, said she had heard of the flu’s spread in other nations and knew something out of the ordinary was up with the teens.

“I thought it was the flu, but as the day went on it became obvious that it was something more,” she said.

While the nurse waited for the city’s experts to start their work, she went back to tending to the students, who lined up in a single file that was so long chairs were put out to accommodate the ill students at the end.

Fortunately, Pappas had support from her fellow school administrators and teachers, who all knew they had a major problem on their hands. Instructors would come by and help to take the temperatures of the students and take down information on their symptoms to make Pappas’ diagnoses more efficient.

“When I realized I had a huge amount of kids here, I had to come up with a plan,” she said.

Part of her strategy for coping with the outbreak was not to appear alarmed or spread a negative attitude among the student body. As the mother of two teenage boys, both of whom attended Prep at the time, Pappas said that in her experience the less stress she exhibited, the easier it was to treat teens.

“You have to remain calm and not show [fear]. In a situation with kids, the calmer you are, the calmer they are,” said the nurse, who never wore a surgical mask once during the ordeal.

Pappas’ fellow instructors praised her for keeping cool under pressure because it gave them confidence to help the students as well.

“We’re lucky to have her,” said Nancy Williams, who works as a guidance counselor at the school. “Her instincts are always there.”

After the DOH confirmed that some of the students had contracted H1N1 on April 24, 2009, administrators closed down the school for a week to prevent more students from catching the virus and cleaned the premises classroom by classroom to make sure the campus was safe.

Since Prep was the first reported site of swine flu cases in the country, the school with nearly 3,000 students had to face another hurdle: the effect the outbreak would have on its image. As word spread, dozens of media outlets from around the world converged on the school’s Fresh Meadows building to try and understand how the swine flu epidemic, which was diagnosed in 70 students and staff, had occurred.

Reports that the virus was transmitted to Queens after an Easter break trip to Mexico, where the disease had already struck the general population, were being circulated on TV, the Internet and newspapers. The numerous deaths that the disease caused was being played up on television stations 24/7 and added to the initial panic in the United States.

Brother Leonard Conway, the Franciscan priest who serves as the school’s principal, said he and his staff decided to tackle the issues head-on in a three-pronged efforts.

Conway provided information to the media, which included reminding reporters that an Easter break trip taken by some seniors south of the border was not sanctioned by the school, McLaughlin dealt with keeping parents and students informed about school matters and Pappas handled any health issues that came about during the week when the school was closed.

Pappas and McLaughlin used Prep’s Web site to keep students up-to-date on their studies and health information by posting homework and swine flu tips. At the same time, the principal said he did not shy away from answering questions from the media about the outbreak and in the end he said it helped Prep.

Their openness, combined with the fact that the more than 100 Prep members who had flu-like symptoms went on to make full recoveries, safeguarded the reputation of the school as being a top place for students, according to Conway.

When they returned to class May 4, 2009, the student body was welcomed back by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was impressed by Prep’s handling of the crisis and commended the students for their composure.

“The conduct of you and your staff is truly remarkable for all of us,” the mayor told Conway during a news conference that day.

Students, like Elena Iannece, who was a freshman at the time and contracted the disease, said that despite the fanfare and attention she and her classmates remained loyal “Terriers.”

“Everyone that was going to Prep is happy that they go there,” the honor student said.

Prep’s approach to the swine flu outbreak would become a case study for schools and groups across the country. Pappas was invited to speak about how she treated the students and was honored all over the nation, including at the White House.

The DOH even wrote an instructional skit for its members based on the first day the teens arrived at her office. Despite being dubbed a superhero, Pappas said her training as a nurse had prepared her for anything.

“It’s definitely a validation that I am a good nurse because I went on my instincts that I’ve learned in my 27 years,” she said.

Her advice would come in handy sooner than expected as more schools across the borough reported swine flu cases, one of which led to the death of a longtime principal at a Hollis middle school.

Aside from extra hand cleanser machines installed throughout the school’s massive building, Conway and McLaughlin said the topic of swine flu rarely comes up in the hallways. McLaughlin credited the student body’s camaraderie and enthusiasm to continue learning as the factors that helped Prep pull through the crisis with a clean bill of health.

“We came out of it very well,” he said. “We came out of the ordeal and education continued.”

This entry was posted on Thursday, April 22nd, 2010 at 9:08 pm and is filed under Education, Feature, Print Articles, Swine Flu, TimesLedger. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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