COLUMBIA — With classes beginning Monday, the Columbia Public School District has begun taking concrete steps to battle a possible resurgence of the H1N1 virus, formerly known as the swine flu.
The state departments of Health and Senior Services and Elementary and Secondary Education released a statement this week urging school officials to prepare effective strategies to handle the virus.
The statement cited recent H1N1 outbreaks at various summer camps and said the virus disproportionately affects school-aged children.
There were seven confirmed cases of the virus in Columbia summer school students this year, said Mary Laffey, assistant superintendent for human resources.
School nurses addressed the health issue at a district staff meeting on Wednesday.
Lori Osborne, health services coordinator for the district, said nurses are making an effort to encourage healthy habits in students and staff and to educate parents on steps to take if their child is ill.
"Good hand-washing is a healthy habit. Covering your mouth, sneezing or coughing into your elbow are just a few of the things we should always be doing," she said.
The district sent a letter to parents outlining steps to protect their child from getting sick. The letter encourages parents to keep their children home if they have a temperature of 100 degrees or more. Students should remain home for 24 hours after the temperature has lowered without the use of fever reduction medication, it said.
Laffey said the district is taking precautions to be ready should it have an issue. The nurses in the district went through an "intense educational effort" focusing on basic good hygiene, and they relayed that information to school staff and students.
The district has increased efforts in education for custodians. Staff has been alerted to pay special attention to "high-contact areas" in schools, such as keyboards, handrails and water fountains, Osborne said.
Nurses plan to speak to each classroom next week to remind students of proper health habits.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests schools have an appropriate space for sick children to wait for transportation home away from healthy students to reduce the risk of an outbreak.
"The more crowded the school, the more they would want to separate sick children from healthy children," CDC spokeswoman Artealia Gilliard said.
All Columbia school nurses are aware of the need to designate such an area, but it will be different at each school, depending on available space. It might just be the nurse's office, Osborne said.
Finding that space is "as important as any other step," Gilliard said.
Schools will also place posters throughout the building reminding students about healthy habits. Some show effective hand-washing techniques and others remind students to cover their mouths when coughing.