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Hernando County School district hopes to lessen impact of swine flu this fall

BROOKSVILLE — When it comes to swine flu and schools, the conclusion is elementary: It's not a question of if the virus will be present in schools, but how widespread and severe it will be.

Now, with a custodian force that a union official says is already stretched thin and a budget low on reserves, school officials are working on a plan to at least contain a swine flu outbreak among students this fall.

The district is waiting for guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and the state Department of Health, said Jim Knight, director of student services.

"I can't tell you anything until we meet with the CDC and find out what recommendations are going to be this year," Knight said this week.

Those recommendations are expected in the coming days. The first day of school is Aug. 24.

As part of its existing guidelines, the CDC no longer recommends closing schools "unless there is a magnitude of faculty or student absenteeism that interferes with the school's ability to function," according to the center's Web site.

"We don't know how virulent the virus is going to be in the fall but we are encouraging the public to be proactive regarding good hygiene," said Susan Smith, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Health.

Smith reiterated the common sense measures that health officials have been trying to drill home for months since the flu appeared: washing hands frequently, covering coughs and sneezes, and most importantly, keeping the sick at home.

The school district has an important role in promoting those habits, health officials say. And schools should be vigilant about cleaning common areas like bathrooms and points of contact such as water fountains and door knobs, said Ann-Gayl Ellis, spokeswoman for the Hernando County Health Department.

"That just makes sense when you're bringing all these kids together and putting them in a classroom," Ellis said. "Hopefully we'll just see mild cases."

The school district has the custodial staff to keep schools clean to combat the spread of the flu, said Sean Arnold, director of maintenance.

The district has about 185 custodians for its 21 schools. Custodians from throughout the district could help if a flu outbreak required a top to bottom sanitizing job at one or multiple schools, Arnold said.

"We have the manpower," he said.

That may be, but an effort to sanitize one or multiple schools that see a serious outbreak would likely cost the district through overtime, said Colin Davies, president of the Hernando United School Workers union.

Custodians barely have enough time in the day to get their regular work done, Davies said.

"They can only do so much in seven hours of work," he said. "You want them to work more, that's fine. But you pay them."

The district each year sets aside a pot of money for overtime for non-instructional employees, said chief financial officer Desiree Henegar.

The overtime bill ran $138,000 last year. This year's budget includes $100,000 for overtime, Henegar said.

Beyond that, the district would have to tap reserves. During budget talks in recent weeks, Henegar has expressed concerns that the district has only about $1 million in rainy day money that has not been allocated for some purpose.

Teachers have to do their part by making sure rooms are clutter free, said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association.

"As teachers, we're responsible to help clean the room, getting the chairs up to make it easier (for custodians to clean)," Vitalo said. "We know they're on a time constraint."

Cafeteria workers already have standard practices to keep kitchens and eating areas clean, said Lori Drenth, the district's director of food services.

Trays, plates, bowls and eating utensils are disposable. Staffers regularly sanitize surfaces such as tables and the areas around food service lines.

"I tell employees you can never wash your hands too much," Drenth said.

• • •

Meanwhile, health officials are making plans to distribute and administer the swine flu vaccine here.

The Hernando County health department has been told to expect an initial batch in mid to late October of 21,000 to 83,000 doses, and then a weekly shipment for nine weeks after that, Ellis said.

"The state is anticipating we'll have enough vaccine to anyone who wants it, but it's coming in pieces," she said.

Those groups that will take priority for the first batch of the vaccine are children ages 6 months to 4 years, children ages 5 to 18 with chronic medical conditions, pregnant women, and health care and emergency service workers, Ellis said.

Also near are top of the priority list are adults ages 25 to 64 with chronic health conditions, as well as people who live with or care for children under 6 months old because the vaccine cannot be administered to children that young.

The county's roughly 4,100 education personnel are currently not in the first tier but are considered a high priority, Ellis said. It's possible the vaccine may be administered in schools, she said.

The vaccine is expected to be free, but an administrative fee has not been ruled out, Ellis said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Hernando County School district hopes to lessen impact of swine flu this fall 08/05/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 5, 2009 7:29pm]
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