Students and School Staff encouraged to take extra precautions
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell is urging everyone to remember safety procedures when students return to school this fall to prevent and mitigate the spread of H1N1 and other influenza viruses.
"The excitement about returning to school and seeing old friends could cause us to let our guard down about preventing the spread of the flu virus," said O'Connell. "I urge parents, students, and school officials to remain vigilant and review the updated safety protocols established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Education."
Speaking at a news conference, O'Connell demonstrated the 'Dracula Sneeze,' a simple technique which uses the arm to shield potential germs rather than the hands, causing the sneezer to resemble the infamous Transylvanian.
O'Connell is offering local education agencies a sample letter they may send home to parents and guardians about the updated guidelines issued earlier in August. The guidelines include the following key recommendations:
- Students and staff with flu-like illness should stay home for at least 24 hours after they no longer have a fever, or signs of a fever, without the use of fever-reducing medicines.
- Students and staff who appear to have flu-like illness should be sent to a room separate from others until they can be sent home. If possible, the ill person should wear a surgical mask to prevent coughing or sneezing on others. A school nurse or other staff person caring for the student should use appropriate personal protective equipment.
- Students and staff should wash hands frequently with soap and water when possible, and always cover noses and mouths with a tissue, shirt sleeve, or elbow when coughing or sneezing. If soap and water is not available, alcohol-based hand sanitizers should be available for student and staff use.
- School staff should routinely clean areas that students and staff touch often with the cleaners they typically use. Cleansers with bleach and other non-detergent-based cleaners are not necessary.
- People experiencing severe flu symptoms, especially those who are at high risk for complications if they become ill with an influenza-like illness should speak with their health care provider as soon as possible. People at high risk include those who are pregnant, have asthma or diabetes, have compromised immune systems, or have neuromuscular diseases.
- Although there are not many schools where all or most students are at high risk, a community might decide to dismiss a school to better protect these students. School officials should work closely and directly with their local and state public health officials when deciding whether or not to selectively dismiss a school or schools with large populations of high risk students.
"As we did last spring during the first H1N1 outbreaks, the Los Angeles County Office of Education will continue to make every effort to help keep all school districts fully informed - getting the right information to the right people at the right time," said Darline P. Robles, the Los Angeles County superintendent of schools. "But there is a lot of critical work that needs to be done outside of schools, in homes, and communities, especially as plans roll out for the vaccination campaign this fall for both seasonal flu and the H1N1 flu. We have learned that the key is to be proactive, and to NOT wait for flu outbreaks to hit our campuses and then try to react. We have stressed the great need for attention to prevention."
If the severity of the virus increases, the federal guidance instructs school administrators to work closely with local public health officials in determining whether to implement an expanded range of options, including dismissing students for a period of time to slow the transmission of the virus. O'Connell pointed out that the guidance stresses that it is important to balance the risk of flu in a community with the disruption, potential safety risks, and other consequences that school dismissals could cause in education and the wider community.
In the event of a school dismissal ordered by a public health officer, school administrators should have plans for continuing the education of students who are at home, through phone calls, homework packets, Internet lessons, and other distance learning approaches. Also, school administrators are urged to self-report the closure to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/schools/dismissal_form/index.htm .
"Our Los Angeles Unified School District task force has been working closely with the Los Angeles County Public Health Department to coordinate and prepare plans for the H1N1 flu virus," said Kimberly Uyeda, MD, MPH, Director, Student Medical Services and Community Partnerships. "We have guidance materials for all schools and offices that outline the protocols, procedures, and support services needed to respond to the pandemic flu. Parents should look for our letter in our back-to-school materials that will give them basic information on how to prevent the flu."
To assist schools in preventing the spread of viruses, the California Department of Education offers further guidance, pandemic flu planning checklists, and resources on flu prevention in multiple languages at http://www.cde.ca.gov/159979 . Schools, parents, and members of the public may also download a free "Keep Our Schools Healthy" information toolkit that contains posters on how to prevent the spread of any germs and viruses at http://www.cde.ca.gov/148645 . The sample letter to parents and guardians is at http://www.cde.ca.gov/159850 . The U.S. Department of Education offers schools a communications toolkit at http://www.flu.gov/plan/school/toolkit.html . For more detailed school guidance, please visit http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/guidance/exclusion.htm .