Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park Schools Will Start Year On Swine Flu Defensive

By Dagny Salas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 6, 2009

Over the summer, Sandy Thompson was looking for a fun way to remind Manassas school employees that good hygiene can help fight the spread of swine flu.

Thompson, supervisor of administrative services for the schools, came across a poster that the public health department in Berkeley, Calif., was distributing to city residents and got permission to adopt it for Manassas schools.

The poster features a hammer hitting four little, angry-looking monsters, quipping: "Protect Your Health. WHACK the Flu!" It includes tips on H1N1 virus prevention.

The flier, which was distributed to students and parents, is just one part of the school system's swine flu readiness plan, schools spokeswoman Almeta Radford said.

As students prepare to return to school Tuesday, officials in Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park have made plans to handle possible swine flu outbreaks. The three school systems will send letters home with students on the first day, officials said. The letters will update parents on the flu situation and explain steps they can take to help protect children, such as reinforcing good hygiene.

"Everyone is trying to stay on top of that," Radford said. "We're just asking everybody to be a little more mindful."

According to reports, children are at a greater risk for infection, and the flu could be widespread among the general population. Thus, school officials have updated their contingency plans, said Ken Blackstone, spokesman for Prince William schools.

Last week, the Prince William district of the Virginia Department of Health gave 70 to 80 school nurses from the three systems a training and information session on swine flu. At county schools, posters emphasizing cleanliness are being placed in restrooms and classrooms, Blackstone said. The county is preparing areas to house students and staff members who have flulike illnesses, he said.

"One of the key things is for school staff to keep up the message of good hygiene," he said.

Tips include teaching children to wash their hands frequently with soap and water and to use tissues when they sneeze or cough.

The schools have been updating information about swine flu on their Web sites over the summer and will continue to designate their sites as a main way to reach parents, officials said.

Despite all the planning, school officials said they don't want families to be overly worried.

In recent weeks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has updated its recommendations for how schools should deal with the flu. When the flu initially emerged from Mexico and spread to the United States in the spring, it was recommended that students and staff members with flulike symptoms stay home for seven days, according to a report. Now, they may return to school 24 hours after the last symptoms of fever.

Unless a significant number of students and employees get the flu, county schools should remain open, Blackstone said. Manassas and Manassas Park schools are operating under a similar plan, officials said.

Parents are encouraged to talk to pediatricians about what to expect when the H1N1 vaccine is available, said Alison Ansher, the regional office's health director.

Officials said parents should concentrate on making sure their children follow good hygiene and keep themselves informed about swine flu updates.

"I don't want to unduly alarm people," Blackstone said. "We hope for the best and plan for the worst."

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