Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

No plan for H1N1 school alerts

Parents won't be told of cases, absenteeism

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There'll be hand sanitizers in classrooms, but parents won't know if there's a confirmed case of H1N1 in their child's school or an unusual absentee rate.

And a number of school divisions and health officials say there'll be no public identification of a school with a confirmed case of H1N1 or absenteeism of 10 per cent or more above seasonal norms.

"Notifying the parents, we're not doing that," said Pembina Trails superintendent Lawrence Lussier.

Superintendents across Winnipeg met with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority last Wednesday, but school divisions have been preparing pandemic plans for months.

That includes sending kids home as soon as they show symptoms, and parents must have a plan for someone to pick them up and care for them at home.

"We've made it very clear to parents that they have to have a child care plan if we have to send (students) home," said Louis Riel superintendent Terry Borys. "We will ask students to leave -- we will be requiring parents to pick up students who are ill."

Any student or staff showing flu symptoms will have to go to a separate room until ready to leave, said Borys.

Every classroom in Seven Oaks School Division has a spray bottle of hand sanitizer sitting on the teacher's desk or handy to everyone on a counter.

Pembina Trails School Division has hand sanitizer in every classroom, and Louis Riel is awaiting a shipment ordered in August.

In Seven Oaks, custodians are doing less floor-sweeping and a lot more disinfecting of doorknobs, bannisters and water fountains.

Students and teachers are encouraged to wash their hands with soap and water frequently, says superintendent Brian O'Leary.

But no school can make itself completely safe from H1N1, warned O'Leary.

"We're reducing the risk, we're not eliminating it," he said.

"We are making hand sanitizers available to schools as they need it," placing them in every classroom, Lussier said. "Our kindergarten classrooms all have bathroom facilities and sinks" and all labs have sinks and water.

Each classroom also has spray bottles of disinfectant to clean desks, doorknobs and other areas frequently.

O'Leary said it was impractical to ask parents to send hand sanitizers with their kids.

"Where we want parents engaged is in proper handwashing, cough etiquette, keeping them home when sick," said O'Leary.

O'Leary was uncertain if kids would exert peer pressure to have everyone use the hand sanitizers or wash with soap and water frequently. Seven Oaks allows 10 minutes between high school classes, leaving plenty of time for proper handwashing.

"We hope it just becomes a routine for kids, that they do it without thinking about it," he said.

In Louis Riel, older students demonstrate proper handwashing techniques to the little kids, who wash with soap and water as a daily routine.

Borys said Louis Riel held an in-service for custodians Sept. 2. There are procedures for cleaning shared equipment such as musical instruments and computers. "The message was, be extra-diligent with common areas, like doorknobs and desks," Borys said.

City divisions believe they have enough qualified substitute teachers, including retired teachers, to get through the pandemic without using unqualified non-teachers in the classroom, which rural schools expect to do.

"We have quite an extensive substitute list," Lussier said. "We don't plan to use unqualified people in a teaching role."

Superintendents stressed that Manitoba Health will make any calls on closing schools.

Officials say that Manitoba Health has told pregnant teachers to be extra-vigilant about handwashing and disinfecting, but expects them to work during a pandemic if they are not ill.

So far, there are no plans to reduce large gatherings of students, though the pandemic plans call for the possibility of teachers rotating classrooms where feasible, and cancelling some extracurricular activities.

"There is provision for cancelling large events and gatherings," said Borys, and there is even a procedure for holding school board meetings by teleconference if trustees become ill.


What Manitoba Health is saying

"PUBLICLY identifying schools is not normal practice and is not planned for H1N1. There is no public-health reason to publicly identify schools with unusual absenteeism.

"... There is also no set absenteeism rate where schools report to Manitoba Health because we are looking for unusual rates -- this can vary between schools. Once the department receives a report of unusual absenteeism, a public-health investigation and appropriate public-health followup takes place within the school and/or the community -- depending on the situation.

"If there were a public-health reason to identify a school, it can be done but in most cases, public-health followup is only needed within the facility. It's important to recognize that by the time an unusual level of absenteeism is reached, the illness has likely already circulated throughout the school community.

"We have to assume H1N1 will be found in all Manitoba communities during the second wave this fall and winter -- as was the case earlier this year. We also expect it to be found in all facilities (schools included), so confirming a case does not change the public health advice that we give...

"If the situation changes and there is a public-health reason to identify a school, a facility or a community, then we would do so, and have the power under the Public Health Act to do that."


BOTH Seven Oaks and Pembina Trails school divisions have piggybacked on an enormous amount of online pandemic-preparedness information gathered by River East Transcona School Division. One place to find it is:

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 30, 2009 A3

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