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Long IslandEducation

Worried schools take steps to limit swine flu exposure

A nurse takes the temperature of a student

A nurse takes the temperature of a student at the United International Private School (UIPS) in Dubai on August 31, 2009. Photo Credit: Getty/KARIM SAHIB

When students in Glen Cove return to school next month, teachers will be touting the virtues of abstinence - no more handshakes, high fives or hugs until further notice.

Hoping to prevent the spread of swine flu in the fall, Superintendent Laurence Aronstein said all skin-on-skin contact will be discouraged.

"I think it's common sense to refrain as much as you can until this passes," he said. "Nobody is going to get in trouble if they shake hands, but there may be consequences in that someone can get sick."

The policy is unorthodox, and could be difficult to enforce, but it is evidence of concerns being expressed across Long Island, where school officials and parents are bracing for a spike in swine flu cases as nearly half a million children head back to classrooms.

Their concerns are echoed nationally, with experts predicting that swine flu will re-emerge this fall and infect as many as half of all Americans, hospitalizing 2 million people and killing up to 90,000. Already, schools in Louisiana and Mississippi, where students returned to classes earlier this month, have reported cases of swine flu.


The toll on Island schools

Last spring, the highly infectious H1N1 virus quickly made its way through districts on Long Island, prompting school closures in Deer Park, Levittown and Valley Stream, and generating high absence rates in other schools that remained open.

So far, Nassau and Suffolk counties have had a total of 286 confirmed swine flu cases. Ten people have died, including a pregnant woman and someone between the ages of 15 and 21.

With people between the ages of 6 months and 24 years being the most susceptible to the virus, district officials in both counties are taking preventive measures to stymie its advance during the upcoming school year. Some school districts are stocking classrooms with hand sanitizers and powerful disinfectant wipes. Others are adopting more aggressive classroom-cleaning policies and communicating with parents about precautions like handwashing.

Wendell Chu, head of the Suffolk County Superintendents' Association, said the organization has held meetings to discuss proper procedures.

"We are going to be emphasizing good hygiene right from the start of school," said Chu, superintendent of the East Islip School District.

In the Islip school district, every classroom and office has been equipped with disinfectant wipes, said Superintendent Susan Schnebel.

"The staff loves them," she said. "This gives the teacher the ability to take care of germs until the cleaning crew comes in."

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy has called a meeting of school superintendents Thursday to discuss preventions and address concerns.

While fearing the spread of the virus, county health officials say they are more concerned about the possibility of widespread anxiety and panic.


Health officials' recommendations

Nassau County Health Commissioner Dr. Maria Torroella Carney recommended that people prepare for the possibility of contracting the flu by knowing where they will be treated and having tissues, ibuprofen and hand sanitizers at home.

"We know the illness will be here and we need to deal with it," she said.

Dr. Humayun Chaudhry, Suffolk County's health commissioner, said people also need to stay informed and realize that recommendations will change as health officials deal with and learn from the pandemic.

Some parents have already begun preparations. In addition to pencils and notebooks, Peggy Donlon has packed sanitizing wipes and gel for her daughter, Kathleen, 10, as she returns to John F. Kennedy Intermediate School in Deer Park.

Donlon, 45, said she is nervous about the resurgence of swine flu - a feeling compounded by the seven confirmed cases officials said the school had last spring.

New federal guidelines discourage school closures for H1N1 pandemic flu this fall - more than 700 schools around the country reportedly closed temporarily during last spring's outbreak - and emphasize that students should not return to class until 24 hours after fever has subsided.

Donlon is preparing for the worst. If another outbreak occurs in her daughter's school, she said, she is keeping her home.

"It's one more thing to worry about, but this is a big one."

With Stacey Altherr and Joie Tyrrell

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