Preparing Schools For Possible Pandemic

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(Sacramento, CA)
Monday, September 18, 2006

When you have a stomachache or a scraped knee there’s one woman to see at Stella Brockman School in Manteca: Tina Bassi.

(office sounds)

She’s the health clerk – though she’s not a nurse.  Her office includes a desk, filing cabinets, two cots, and six chairs. A motherly no-nonsense lady, Bassi sometimes sees as many as twenty students in 3 hours.

When they come in, you know, if they’re not bleeding or throwing up or whatever, it’s like take a number.

It’s Bassi who would likely first deal with a sick kid if there was a pandemic.  Does that make her nervous?

No, because I would just put my gloves on and use the precautions that we’ve been taught about using bodily fluids. I don’t think a child would like that if you backed up and said oh, we don’t want to touch you, so I put my gloves on and deal with it.

One problem with that scenario… the flu virus spreads mostly through the air.  So gloves won’t help much.  Masks are being talked about in some districts.  But it’s an example of how normal precautions fall short in the case of a flu pandemic.  Linda Davis-Aldritt is a school nurse consultant for the Department of Education.  She says a longer range plan is required.

Unlike an emergency like an earthquake or a fire or something like that this is going to be a sustained crisis situation.

She says pandemic flu could hit a community for four to eight weeks and continue to come in waves for as long as two years.  She says some counties, like San Joaquin, are ahead of the curve in prepping, while others haven’t done much at all.

I don’t think we’re prepared.

That’s Manteca Health Services Coordinator Caroline Thibideau. She’s talking about the whole country, not just her district.  She says the county has a 45-page plan that calls for isolating sick kids, sanitizing rooms more frequently, and using the internet to keep kids learning if schools close.  Thibideau says there’s one nurse for every 3-to 4-thousand students in the district, which means training teachers and administrators will be key.  But she adds they’d be at risk too.

Can you imagine knowing that the pandemic is occurring and now you don’t feel good?  So, do I just kiss everyone goodbye on the way out and say I’m probably not going to be back because am I going to get that sick and die?

Dr. Howard Backer is the lead on pandemic flu planning for the state Department of Health Services.  He says schools are a major part of the planning because, simply put, kids spread germs.

If you’re going to shut anything down it should probably be schools in terms of the impact you get in slowing down disease spread.

He says it’s still being debated, but many health experts agree that closing schools in the case of a pandemic could help everyone.

It would be done very early on, before there’s high levels of illness in the community to try to basically blunt the spread through the community.

In Karen Olson’s 8th grade language arts class, they’re discussing the latest test scores, and pandemic flu isn’t exactly high on the radar.

(classroom sounds)

Olson admits she’s thought about it, but not so much about how she’d handle things here in Manteca.  It’s more personal, she says.  She has two kids who go to different schools.

I think the harder part would be for me, is that if it happens here, I’d worry about my kids who are elsewhere.  I could deal with it here it’d be what I would be worried about outside of here that would bother me more.

That’s no doubt a concern of many parents,  who are hoping, like Olson, that all 58 counties will be prepared.