09/02/09 — Schools ready for flu fight this year

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Schools ready for flu fight this year

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on September 2, 2009 1:46 PM

School officials are treating the possibility of a flu epidemic like they do any other communicable disease -- encouraging preventive measures and trying to stay on top of best practices.

"We try to take a proactive approach to health issues, not just within the schools, but in the community as well," said Allison Pridgen, director of student support services for Wayne County Public Schools.

While H1N1 might be a new strain of flu, the district is not new to handling such emergencies.

"It's entirely manageable, it's preventable at this point," Mrs. Pridgen said. "I think it's important that we treat it like any other communicable disease -- wash your hands, cover your mouth, stay home if you're sick, just common practice methods are the name of the game. ...

"I have been in constant communication with the health director over the summer since all this swine flu, H1N1, came about and we have a team of folks that meet for different conference calls with CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) or just localized meetings sometimes with how we will respond to this, that and the other."

Whether it's seasonal flu, MRSA or any other topic, the district takes its guidance from the CDC, Mrs. Pridgen said.

"We do that in an effort to be proactive and not promote fear," she said.

It is standard practice with the start of each school year to release information with regard to the seasonal flu, which is now H1N1, meningitis and HPV. The information will also contain hygiene reminders.

While the future is unknown, Mrs. Pridgen recommends taking a calm and systematic approach.

"My understanding is the H1N1 is a very mild flu," she said. "A lot of it is prevention."

Although things are subject to change, school officials plan to respond as warranted. At this point, the possibility of closing schools does not seem to fall into that category.

"CDC is not recommending school closures," she said. "However, we have a lot of epidemiology -- a committee through the Health Department and there are individuals that sit on that committee from the hospital, the public schools, the base. And they have established a rather loose 15 percent rate -- 15-20 percent -- whereupon the committee might consider making such a recommendation."

Ultimately, it will be the district's decision, she said. But certainly, if there is an exorbitant absentee rate, of teachers as well as students, it will be considered.

"If you have 15 to 20 teachers out with a flu, that means you'd have to bring in substitutes, so there are all sorts of ramifications," Mrs. Pridgen said.

As the situation unfolds, the district will release updates to parents and the community, she added.

"We have not done so yet, but we want to get something on our Web site, just some generalized information for our parents on prevention," she said. "We're also considering putting something on our educational TV channel as well, again, on prevention. We want to use as many modalities of communication as we can.

"Parents can be assured if there's a particular threat in our schools, they'll be notified."

The best piece of advice, she said, per CDC recommendations, is for children to remain out of school if they are sick, and to keep them home until they have been fever free for 24 hours.

"In that same vein, we will be asking employees to monitor themselves as well, and if they are ill, they need to stay home," she said.

Concerns surrounding the new strain of flu are understandable, Mrs. Pridgen said.

"When we first started hearing about H1N1 on TV, they called it swine flu and then it was renamed H1N1," she said. "I think those initial reports created a little mass hysteria. As time has gone on, we have seen that it's very mild compared to the typical seasonal flu. We need to treat it as we would any other communicable disease.

"As far as the hygiene of our schools is concerned, our custodians are well-trained. They have a procedure in place, they do disinfecting on a daily basis. That's standard. Our custodians do that every day."

Likewise, the district's school nursing program is also in place to handle any outbreaks.

"At Wayne County Schools we have 17 registered school nurses and they will be available to provide support to parents with regard to information and prevention, and are well-trained to identify the symptoms of illness," she said.