Local schools take universal action to swine flu preparedness
Preparing for a possible swine flu (influenza A (H1N1) virus) outbreak is a tricky thing. For local school systems, it is a mix of being vigilant and keeping everyone calm, as no cases have been reported in the county.
Across the board, the Putnam County schools are keeping the lines of communication open and instituting basic, common sense procedures to promote good hygiene.
Past and potential scares are now benefiting the schools and their safety officers as they prepare for any possible problems from this latest scare.
"Our school board has a pandemic plan in January of 2008. Schools around the country had been working on that for a while when they were worried about the bird flu," said Shawn Gobert, Greencastle Middle School principal and GCSC school safety specialist. "Thank goodness we did all that work at that time, even though that hasn't happened."
The other schools in the county also have similar plans in place and have referred to them in the past week.
"We're just reminding everybody what our plans are anyway. We kind of went through this in the fall with MRSA," said North Putnam assistant superintendent and safety officer Kevin Emsweller.
An important aspect of any of these plans is keeping everyone informed and calm. Gobert said the entire corporation staff was e-mailed Monday to let them know there is a plan, what symptoms are and what steps to take to prevent infection.
From there, parents and students were informed. All four school systems have sent letters home to parents assuring them that a plan is in place and the school is doing all it can to keep its students and employees healthy.
"The whole point was we were trying to alleviate concerns and not add to any hysteria," Gobert said. "We talked about the basic precautions you can take that we keep hearing from the CDC -- wash your hands, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. We encouraged each building to remind students of those basic things."
Besides the basic hygiene issues, though, Gobert said the Greencastle schools are having their custodians also take extra precautions by more frequently cleaning surfaces that might not get cleaned every day -- doorknobs, crash bars on doors and desktops, for example.
Another important factor for the schools is monitoring absences and the reasons for those absences.
"One of the things in our flu plan is that we have a log in which the secretaries, when they have calls from parents, can log the nature of the symptoms when we have a potential outbreak we are concerned about, so that we have a big picture. Maybe we have 30 kids out, but only eight of them, maybe, have symptoms that concern us. The other 22 might have symptoms of sinus infection or something," Gobert said.
"That's changed sort of how we operate right now, because normally when a child is sick, we don't pry. But now we're asking the secretaries to say, 'Under the circumstances, we're not trying to be pushy, but could you please share what symptoms the child has so we can keep tabs on this.' That helps us know if we need to report to the health department or not," he added.
South Putnam superintendent Bruce Bernhardt indicated that his schools are taking similar steps.
"Our nurses are alerted to any students who have fevers or are showing any kind of symptoms," Bernhardt said. "We're asking parents that if their kids are showing any type of flu signs they contact their doctors and get in touch with us also."
Another important factor is none of the schools are working in a vacuum. All of their flu plans are based on guidelines from government health agencies, and as the current situation develops, they remain in contact with the authorities and one another.
"All four schools keep in contact with one another," said Cloverdale High School principal and safety officer Sonny Stoltz. "If somebody does something, we let the others know. If something does happen, we are going to have to rely on other agencies. It's a pretty good group of three other schools to work with."
"All of the county nurses, the safety directors and the superintendents have talked together," Bernhardt said. "We've all had these round robin discussions about all of this, so that's why it's pretty universal."
The schools also remain well versed in the situation in the entire state and country.
"Our school nurse participated in a national conference call on Monday. I've typically had CNN on in my office. Thursday afternoon the CDC did a Webcast that we tuned in to," Gobert said.
The biggest aspect might be balancing preparedness with remaining calm. Gobert discussed how most cases in the U.S. have been mild with only one death. This pales in comparison to the thousands who die from the "normal" flu every year.
"At this stage, we need to just step back and look at this," Gobert said.