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Schools weigh how to handle pandemic

There was a time when a school nurse's worst nightmare was a bad case of head lice.

It seems that time is long gone.

About 200 school nurses and district administrators from Stanislaus County gathered Thursday to discuss how to keep schools in business during a pandemic flu outbreak.

Unlike flu season, which happens every year, a pandemic flu outbreak happens about three times a century and can sicken one-third of the population. History has shown that adults younger than 35 are disproportionately affected by pandemic flu.

Stanislaus County Deputy Fire Warden Mike Wilkinson estimated about 40 percent of students would be absent from school at the peak of a pandemic outbreak, which could last 18 months.

"It's not just those who are sick, it's the fear of getting sick," Wilkinson said.

Dr. John Walker, public health officer for Stanislaus County, gave school nurses tips for keeping children healthy during a pandemic outbreak or during flu season.

He said having children cough into their hands causes just as much risk of contagion as not covering their mouths, so he suggested that nurses should teach children to cough into the crook of their elbow.

"You're also in the infection control business," Walker told the crowd. "Pandemics are like hurricanes. Not every hurricane is a Katrina."

Patty Hill Thomas, the county's chief operations officer, said school districts should beef up their distance learning programs, which would allow students to do homework and communicate with teachers in the event classes are canceled.

"I can tell you we've gotten pretty good at sandbags," Hill Thomas said. "But in an event like this, we won't be able to rely so much on things we can stockpile."

Feds find most are unprepared

A report released in May by the U.S. Government Accountability Office showed that most schools across the nation are not prepared for a pandemic outbreak. Among the findings:

Half of all districts don't have plans for continuing to educate students in the event of a lengthy school closure.

Sixty-two percent cite "a lack of equipment and expertise."

Seventy-two percent say competing priorities, such as academic demands, supersede emergency planning.

The Sylvan Union School District showcased its online distance learning program, called Moodle, to educators Thursday.

Students use Moodle to talk to one another about assignments, present projects and download their homework, said Randy Kinkiness, director of student support services.

Trying programs, Web sites

A handful of teachers in Modesto City Schools began trying Moodle this year, said director of technology Stan Trevena. Some junior high and high schools use SchoolCenter, a classroom Web site on which teachers can post grades, Trevena said.

Since the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, many districts have adopted "safe school" plans that include procedures during a school shooting.

But a pandemic outbreak would include a whole new set of what-ifs, such as:

"Who takes over if the superintendent or principal is ill?"

"What happens if schools are used as places to treat patients?"

And the ultimate: "What happens if a school needs to be used as a jail?"

Administrators agree that the key to keeping order during an outbreak is communication among agencies and with parents.

Several districts, including Modesto City Schools, Ceres Unified, Manteca Unified and Patterson, have automatic dialer systems that can send prerecorded messages or e-mails to parents.

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at mbalassone@modbee.com or 578-2337.

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