It's a fairly common scenario for Minnesota educators: A child comes to class with a hacking cough, fever and runny nose, and within a couple of days several other students in the room have the bug.

It begs the question: What were the parents of the first ill child thinking? No single answer fits all cases. In the Twin Cities, where a high percentage of families have two parents working outside the home, rearranging work schedules on the fly can be difficult. Some employers simply aren't or can't be that flexible.

Understandably, schools emphasize the importance of attendance records, so well-meaning parents feel pressure to keep their kids in school even if they might be less than 100 percent healthy. And, of course, a smaller percentage of inconsiderate parents simply view their schools as day care, in sickness and in health.

Adults are just as likely to bring illnesses to the workplace, especially when staffing levels are already down and many companies are tightening sick-leave policies. At some smaller businesses, especially in the service sector, calling in sick is simply not an option. The unfortunate irony is that many of those companies -- restaurants are the best example -- deal directly with the public in ways that can easily spread viruses.

This pattern plays itself out every fall and winter in Minnesota schools and workplaces as viruses make the rounds, but the arrival of the H1N1 virus makes the situation more serious in 2009. Consider Lakeville's Eastview Elementary, where more than one-fourth of students were out sick with flu symptoms this week and several had confirmed cases of H1N1.

This is not a typical fall in Minnesota, and parents, school administrators, and business owners and managers need to have plans in place to responsibly deal with what are expected to be unusually high rates of absenteeism. Minnesotans are not likely to agree on the parameters of health care reform anytime soon, but there should be consensus that by taking intelligent steps we can slow the spread of seasonal flu and the H1N1 virus.

The gloomy prediction from University of Minnesota health expert Michael Osterholm last week called for the number of H1N1 cases to peak in Minnesota in the next five to seven weeks -- before the vaccine is expected to be widely available. That means personal and corporate responsibility are the best defense right now.

The many challenges for businesses were made clear this week at a national conference in Minneapolis called "Keeping the World Working During the H1N1 Pandemic." Experts advised businesses to come up with an H1N1 plan as soon as possible, with a priority on keeping sick workers home without the threat of job loss. They also emphasized scheduling flexibility so that parents can stay home with sick children or those whose schools are closed.

State and national health officials say schools and employers should expect absences of three to five days, and they advise flu sufferers to stay home at least 24 hours after they are free of fever. The Minnesota Department of Health said Wednesday that despite some current vaccine shortages, residents should be persistent in seeking seasonal flu shots. Both regular flu viruses and the novel H1N1 virus are expected to circulate in the state this fall and winter, so officials are recommending at least two vaccinations for most people -- one for seasonal flu and one for H1N1.

In the meantime, following the advice of health officials and using common sense -- including keeping sick kids and adults away from work and school -- are the most important steps Minnesotans can take to limit the impact of the flu.