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Schools spray, wipe, repeat

ST. PETERSBURG — Atop a filing cabinet in the back of Sean O'Flannery's classroom is an arsenal prepared to do battle against germs:

A 32-ounce bottle of Winn-Dixie All Purpose Cleaner, a 40-ounce bottle of Germ-X hand sanitizer, and a 12-ounce can of Lysol disinfectant.

Reinforcements, including miniature bottles of hand sanitizer, line the shelves of his supply closet.

The Lakewood High School social studies teacher swears he's not a germophobe.

"You read all these different things, and you wonder how big a deal this is," O'Flannery said, referring to the threat of a second round of swine flu in the Tampa Bay area. "The key is preventing yourself from getting sick in the first place."

School officials are taking the same perspective as a new academic year begins.

Relying on information from the Pinellas County Departments of Health and Emergency Management, and recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, superintendent Julie Janssen sent information to principals the week before school started.

Included were tips on how teachers can guard against the H1N1 virus, such as urging kids to wash their hands frequently, and the steps schools can take if they suspect a child might be ill, such as isolating them from other students.

But many teachers, like O'Flannery, are going above and beyond the district's suggestions.

"When you hear about people dying in Mexico," O'Flannery said, "you're like, 'Uh oh.' "

• • •

Even without the swine flu threat, the district's nursing staff is taxed.

Only nine elementary schools, not counting those for children with special needs, have a full-time nurse. The rest of the district's nurses rotate among schools, each one responsible for 3,500 to 5,000 children.

The School Board tried to expand the district's corps of 82 nurses and nursing assistants last winter, but budget cuts ended the discussion.

"We pretty much limp along and manage," said Rita Becchetti, supervisor of school health services. "I just feel fortunate that we didn't lose any nurses."

Meanwhile, some fear that cuts to the district's maintenance staff could compromise school cleanliness.

"It's a huge concern," said School Board member Janet Clark. "They have to do the floors, they have to dust, and now they have to wipe down all the desks. Something is going to fall by the wayside."

Shore Acres Elementary teacher Rachael Gabel is enlisting her kindergarteners to help keep germs at bay. Each week, she will name two children to a cleanup crew. The children will make sure their classmates keep their desks clean.

"I'm kind of on pins and needles about what's going to happen this year," Gabel said. "I had a few kids last year with repeat sicknesses."

• • •

Health officials say the best way to guard against flu is to wash hands with soap and water for as long as it takes to sing the Happy Birthday song.

That might work for elementary school kids, but what about middle schoolers?

"You can do it, but you have to use a bit of humor," said Brenda Poff, principal at Dunedin Highland Middle School. "They're very preoccupied with being cool, and if you're too serious, they will certainly balk."

But they still need to be protected, Poff said, so she is stocking up on hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes.

"Hands on stairwells and doorknobs will be a constant, hourly issue," she said.

The district's warehouse is fully stocked with soap and disposable wipes. District officials say no extraordinary cleaning methods will be used or are necessary to combat this particular flu strain.

"There is no great plan to go into the schools with industrial cleaners," said Michael Bessette, the district's director of facilities, operations, safety and security. "This is not something where if I rub my arm against it, I'm going to get swine flu."

• • •

O'Flannery at Lakewood High hears all that but is not reassured.

He spent part of each class Tuesday, the first day of school, telling his 120 students about flu prevention. He showed them how to properly disinfect their desks.

He asked them not to leave used tissues on the floor.

Still, he worries about the health department's prediction that up to 30 percent of Tampa Bay area residents could get the virus.

When kids miss school, O'Flannery said, it doesn't take long for them to get behind.

That's why he'll continue to fight the good fight.

"I'm going to err on the side of caution," he said. "I'd rather do too much than not enough."

Fast facts

School policy

What the school district will do when a student presents H1N1 flu symptoms:

• A parent will be asked to pick the student up as soon as possible.

• The student will be isolated from other students until the parent arrives.

• The student might be asked to wear a face mask to reduce the spread of germs.

• Ideally, the student will lie down on a cot.

• If a parent is delayed, the student will be offered water.

Source: Pinellas County School District

For flu information:

Call the district's supervisor for school health at (727) 588-6320 from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, or the district's emergency management coordinator at (727) 588-6131.

• For statewide updates, go to MyFluSafety.com or call the toll-free H1N1 swine flu information line at 1-877-352-3581.

Schools spray, wipe, repeat 08/29/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 29, 2009 5:31am]

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