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FLU-SCHOOLS Aug-24-2009 (940 words) xxxn

Catholic schools urged to prepare for potential flu outbreak

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- As Catholic schools begin their fall classes amid threats of flu outbreaks, hand sanitizers are going to be more of a staple than ever and school officials will be urged to follow large doses of common sense.

At many schools, more than the usual cleaning up took place over the summer as desks and chairs were scrubbed with bleach in an effort to sterilize classrooms and rid them of possible germs associated with the H1N1 virus, known as swine flu.

But despite schools' best efforts to stay germ-free, flu outbreaks are still anticipated.

If students at Catholic schools are diagnosed as having the H1N1 virus, school officials are advised to follow the same protocol as public schools -- to close the school only as a last resort and instead make sure those who are ill stay home until they are no longer contagious.

This advice was announced Aug. 20 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Education.

Marie Powell, executive director of Catholic education for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, sent notices during the summer to Catholic school officials urging them to be aware of government guidelines for handling the flu and advising them to make the necessary preparations.

In July, Powell attended the White House's H1N1 Influenza Preparedness Summit at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. During the session she asked about the possibility of children being vaccinated for the H1N1 virus at school without parental notification.

Powell was assured that parental consent forms would be required before any shots would be administered. Currently, vaccines are still being tested to see if they would be effective against the H1N1 virus.

About 500 people, including emergency managers, educators, school nurses and public health officials attended the gathering dubbed the "flu summit."

One participant was Mary Pappas, the sole school nurse for the 2,700 students at St. Francis Preparatory School in the New York City borough of Queens -- the first school in the country to close in April because of a swine flu outbreak. Twenty-eight students tested positive for swine flu and 45 confirmed cases of the flu were linked to the school community.

The same month three Catholic schools in Brooklyn, N.Y., closed for two days as a precautionary measure.

Pappas, who was barraged with students complaining of flulike symptoms, said she had to cope with limited resources -- one phone to call parents -- and limited space and staff.

She advised schools to designate rooms where sick students could wait for parents.

That very advice is part of the CDC recommendations for schools. Another tip the agency suggests is to move students' desks farther apart. The guidelines also note that if many students become infected there may be a need for additional measures such as screening staff members and students daily and telling people at high risk and those with sick family members to stay home.

Some diocesan school superintendents have posted their preparations for the flu on diocesan Web sites.

Kevin Vickery, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., posted a letter to Catholic school parents on the diocesan Web site stressing the need to be "especially vigilant" to keep away the flu virus.

"Throughout the year we will do everything we can to keep our schools functioning as usual," he wrote. He requested that parents encourage frequent hand washings, urge children not to share personal items and keep sick children at home.

Sister Gloria Cain, a School Sister of Notre Dame and school superintendent for the Dallas Diocese, similarly posted a letter to school parents. She said the diocesan schools, in compliance with the CDC guidelines, would not close for suspected or confirmed cases of H1N1 virus "unless there is a magnitude of faculty or student absenteeism that interferes with the school's ability to function."

If the situation changed, she said, schools would follow their crisis management plan in coordination with local health authorities. She said parents would be promptly informed of any changes.

Diocesan communications directors who spoke with Catholic News Service said a key aspect of how schools respond to potential flu outbreaks is in their communication with diocesan officials, local health departments and parents.

In the Los Angeles Archdiocese, a Catholic school closed temporarily in April when it was merely suspected that a student had swine flu. The closing and the media frenzy that followed it turned out to be a false alarm as the student tested negative for the flu.

Tod Tamberg, director of media relations for the archdiocese, said archdiocesan schools would be following CDC guidelines and working closely with health department officials to avoid unnecessary panic.

That is not to say there isn't concern, because as he pointed out, Southern California is on particular alert because "so many of our families have cross-border ties" and also because Los Angeles is a major port of entry.

Joe Zwilling, New York's archdiocesan director of communications, similarly said schools in the New York Archdiocese would be working closely with health officials to avoid the panic that swept through the school community last spring.

In April, one Catholic school in Manhattan had reported several students with flulike symptoms but did not have confirmed cases of swine flu.

Zwilling said the archdiocese was "refining protocols from last spring" about school closings and would be working with government officials.

Ryan Blackburn, director of marketing communication for the Catholic Schools Office of the Chicago Archdiocese, said school officials have been gearing up for potential flu cases for months.

As he sees it, the healthy approach is "good communication."


Copyright (c) 2009 Catholic News Service/USCCB. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed.
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