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District gears up for potentially busy flu season

As a school nurse, Jane Schleisman is used to telling kids to wash their hands and cover their mouths when they cough.

These days, District 196's lead health services nurse has even more reason to push good hygiene. With some health officials worried about a flu pandemic this fall, Schleisman and other district employees will pay close attention to every sneeze and sniffle from students.

Schleisman, who's in her second year in the district, said she's fascinated by infectious disease. That's good, because she's already spent an entire summer in meetings with state health officials to talk about how schools handled things last spring when there was a concern about an outbreak of H1N1 flu, and how they can do better this fall. Schleisman said a policy last spring that kept students out of schools a full seven days when they came down with the flu did not go over well, in part because parents who didn't want their kids out of class that long pressured clinics to overrule the schools. The current recommendation is to keep kids home a full 24 hours after their fever goes away.

"I felt like we kind of got our feet wet last spring and saw some things that didn't work," Schleisman said.

Those absences can still add up, though, and the district plans to send information to parents soon to help them prepare for potential flu-related problems. Schleisman recommended parents have a plan in place for staying home with sick kids. She said parents should also be prepared to pick up their kids quickly if they get sick in the middle of the day. Schools will have areas where kids can be isolated if they start getting feverish in class, but they can't stay there all day.

Schleisman said it is important for kids to stay home when they're sick. With so many people in a confined space, one case of flu can spread quickly in a school. The district will get rid of perfect-attendance awards this year to remove incentive for sick kids to drag themselves to school in hopes of earning a gold star.

The biggest part of the district's efforts this fall will focus on education. Teachers will start the year with lessons on proper handwashing technique, and on covering coughs and sneezes.

Schools are also taking steps to make it easier for students to use good hygiene. Elementary schools have for years included facial tissues on school supply lists so classrooms could be stocked all year, but now secondary schools are asking students to help keep a supply on hand. Schleisman said secondary schools are also installing dispensers filled with hand sanitizer outside lunchrooms, so students don't have to wait in long bathroom lines to wash their hands before they eat.

"We are trying to make it a little more user-friendly for them," Schleisman said.

District preparations

Getting ready for a possible flu outbreak means more than just knowing how to identify sick kids, though. The district is also taking steps to make sure it will be able to function if a number of teachers or other employees get sick. Schleisman said she has more substitute nurses than usual on the roster this year.

"I know other departments are looking at that, too," Schleisman said. "We've certainly looked at substituting. Certainly we would want staff to stay home if they're sick."

Minnesota has had 259 hospitalized cases of H1N1 influenza to date, but health officials have mixed opinions on the outlook for fall. Some worry a pandemic is imminent, while others believe the impact will be less significant.

Schleisman said she is happy with the approach the district has taken so far.

"I think we're right where we need to be between apathy and panic," she said. "We are very alert. We are making changes."