Schools gird for onslaught of unusual flu season
Click here [PDF] to read the Janesville School District’s pandemic flu plan.
JANESVILLE Imagine one-third of teachers home sick.
Or one-third of the students.
That’s one scenario the government is asking schools to consider as they prepare for a double dose of influenza this fall.
Schools will be facing the seasonal flu and swine flu, also known as H1N1. It’s the same strain that hit last spring and then went under the radar.
But it never went away, and authorities expect swine flu will spread widely this fall.
Rock County Health Officer Karen Cain said vaccination is the best way to stop the flu. But, she and other experts say the next line of defense is to combat those virus-carrying bits of moisture that fly out of mouths when we sneeze or stick to our fingers when we rub our noses. The virus lives on our hands and on surfaces we touch.
So far, the largest number of swine flu cases has been among people between the ages of 5 and 24 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That’s why schools are Ground Zero for prevention of an expected pandemic flu outbreak.
“They seem more susceptible because they’re the ones that don’t take care of themselves as well,” said Mary Kozak, school nurse in the Janesville School District.
It falls to teachers to teach kids how to cough and how to wash afterwards. Teachers say they know how to do that—they’ve been doing it for years.
Tara Compton teaches coughing and cleanliness along with letters, shapes and colors to kindergartners at Janesville’s Washington Elementary School.
“With little ones, there’s just a lot of constant reminders,” Compton said. “Usually, we do a classroom demonstration—how we cough into our sleeve, you know, our little elbow.”
Compton has a sink in her classroom with a poster above it to remind kids how to wash. There’s hand sanitizer available as well.
Most teachers ask parents to supply tissues for the classroom. Some ask kids to bring hand sanitizer. Compton also asks her families to send sanitizing wipes so that a table can be wiped down right away after a sneeze.
Another teacher, Megan Van Veghel at Janesville’s Jefferson Elementary School, said she reminds kids to wash whenever they cough or sneeze.
“I feel like I say it a lot,” Van Veghel said.
Teachers routinely clean classroom surfaces that kids touch, such as doorknobs and tables.
Van Veghel washes common tables every day and kids’ desks at least once a week with a spray bottle supplied by the district.
The Janesville School District does not supply hand sanitizer, but it’s OK for a child to bring hand sanitizer to school. Kozak asks that parents send a note so teachers know they have it.
“Sanitizer can contain from 60 percent to 90 percent alcohol. You don't want students to ingest it or overuse it on hands for the drying effect on the skin,” Kozak said.
Teachers also are asked to send children to the office if they show flu symptoms. The kids will wait until a parent picks them up. They’ll wear masks as they wait to keep from infecting others, Kozak said.
Work at home
The federal government advises schools to tell teachers to get ahead in lesson plans and assignments so they can send work home with sick children.
In Janesville, teachers are being asked to ready materials to keep kids busy for five days at home. That’s how long it is expected it’ll take for the flu to run its course. They’re also asked to send a reading book home with each sick child.
The Janesville take-home materials will not be the lessons being taught in school; putting those together in advance for every week of the year would be very difficult, said Marge Hallenbeck, director of at-risk and multicultural programs.
Instead, the materials will help children stay fresh with their math, English or other subjects, Hallenbeck said.
Federal education authorities say schools should use computers and the Internet to keep sick kids up to date, but Hallenbeck said that’s a problem when every home doesn’t have Internet access.
The district will inform parents of online resources, which may include recordings of local teachers’ lessons, postings of lesson plans and materials and teacher blogs. There’s also talk of using the district’s cable television channel or public TV to show recorded lessons.
Closing schools is not recommended unless the pandemic becomes severe. Janesville schools Superintendent Karen Schulte said the district would close a school if the county health department tells it to.
“They’re the health experts,” Schulte said.
Vaccinations now are under way for seasonal flu. The swine flu vaccine is expected to arrive sometime in October.
Cain from the health department will meet Wednesday with public school officials from around the county to ask them to let some schools be swine flu vaccination centers.
Not every school will be a vaccination site. Cain said her department is looking for at least one school in each school district. Vaccination clinics likely would be after school is out for the day, Cain said.
Cain wants parents to be with their children when they get vaccinated.
The Janesville School District monitors school illness trends and has a response plan for pandemic illness, written last spring during swine flu’s first onslaught.
The district’s plan divides responses into severity levels, from Level 1 when there’s no threat from a virus, to Level 4, the recovery stage after the flu season ends.
Janesville is at Level 2, a preparedness stage, said Mat Haeger, manager of health and safety.
Level 2 includes monitoring the illness absences at four schools spread around the city. If absences exceed 10 percent, that would trigger a Level 3, a more intense response and monitoring of all schools.
But as of last week, Haeger said schools’ absences for illness were normal, 4 percent to 5 percent.
Schulte said if the flu takes out large numbers of teachers, she’d call on substitute teachers and administrators from the central office to fill the gaps.
But what if the flu spreads more widely or becomes more virulent than expected?
Officials say all they can do is plan and hope for the best.
Educators say help from parents is key in fighting the flu. Here’s a list of what parents can do to prepare for this extraordinary flu season, sent to parents in the Evansville School District:
n Plan for child care at home if your child gets sick or their school is dismissed for a at least five school days. Children and adults should stay out of school until at least 24 hours after they no longer have a fever or signs of a fever.
-- Plan to monitor the health of the sick child and any other children by checking for fever and other symptoms.
-- Update emergency contact lists.
-- Identify a separate room in the house for care of sick family members. Consider designating a single person as the main caregiver.
-- Pull together games, books, DVDs and other items to keep your family entertained while at home.
-- Talk to your school about their flu pandemic or emergency plan.
-- Get your family vaccinated for seasonal flu and swine flu when vaccines are available.
If the severity of the flu worsens, the Centers for Disease Control may ask that schools do more than what is currently recommended, including:
-- Check students and staff for fever and other symptoms as they arrive at school and send home those who are ill as soon as possible.
-- Ask people at high risk of flu complications to stay home “when a lot of flu is circulating in the community.”
-- Ask students who have an ill household member to stay home for five days from the day the first household member gets sick. This is the time they are most likely to get sick themselves.
-- Increase distance between people. Move desks farther apart, cancel classes that bring together children from different classrooms, hold classes outdoors or discourage use of school buses and public transit.
-- Have people with flu-like illness stay home for at least seven days, even after symptoms cease.
-- Close a school. “Schools that dismiss students should do so for five to seven calendar days and should reassess whether or not to resume classes after that period. Schools that dismiss students should remain open to teachers and staff so they can continue to provide instruction through other means.
“Reactive dismissals might be appropriate when schools are not able to maintain normal functioning—for example, when a significant number and proportion of students have documented fever while at school despite recommendations to keep ill children home.
“Preemptive dismissals can be used proactively to decrease the spread of flu. CDC may recommend preemptive school dismissals if the flu starts to cause severe disease in a significantly larger proportion of those affected.”