Students in the Medford School District during the next school year will see more no-touch automatic hand-sanitizing dispensers and posters encouraging good hygiene, all part of a plan to try to reduce the local toll of the H1N1 flu virus pandemic.
The district of nearly 12,000 pupils is developing an emergency plan for responding to the new strain of influenza that is projected to infect 30 percent to 50 percent of the U.S. population this fall and winter. The plan, which is now in draft form, is expected to be adopted by the Medford School Board in the next month, said Medford schools Superintendent Phil Long.
So far, the largest number of infections has occurred in people ages 5 to 24, making schools a major battleground in the offensive against the spread of the virus, said Tania Tong, Medford schools supervisor for student services.
"This is not to alarm anyone, but information is knowledge, so by having that we can be preventative," Tong said.
The virus is spread through contact with respiratory droplets from an infected person and can be spread on a surface such as a desk when someone comes in contact with germs and then touches their eyes, mouth or nose before washing their hands. Similar to other flu viruses, the symptoms include a fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue.
The Oregon Department of Education has supplied schools with a flu curriculum, so teachers will begin the school year instructing students in grades kindergarten through 12 on precautions they can take to avoid infection or avoid spreading it to others. They include primarily washing hands before touching one's face and after coming into contact with common objects such as door handles.
Alcohol-based hand sanitizers also are known to be effective in killing the virus on skin, Tong said. The school district is expected to install about 1,000 more automatic no-touch hand sanitizer dispensers this fall, she said. Some dispensers already are in place, including a free-standing dispenser at the entrance of the South Medford High School cafeteria where the School Board holds their bi-monthly meetings.
Students and staff in the Medford district who are known to be infected with the virus will be separated from others, given a mask and sent home, Tong said. Sick students will be given a safe waiting place separated from their peers where they can wait to be picked up, she said.
"We already have a policy that if you have a fever of 100 or greater you have to go home or stay home," Tong said.
Massive school closures could happen but are unlikely, Tong said.
Jackson County Health and Human Services and school officials would decide whether to close schools based on the circumstances that arise.
"That's one reason to coordinate with neighboring (school) districts, so we don't have dueling decisions," Long said.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said last week that pre-emptive school closures won't stop the spread of the disease, citing vaccinations as the nation's only defense against an epidemic.
The first limited rounds of vaccinations will go first to children under age 5, pregnant women and people with high-risk medical conditions.
Some schools in the country have been considering setting up vaccination clinics at school buildings. Medford officials said they are willing to host vaccinations at school sites, but don't have enough nurses to administer vaccinations.
A school district emergency planning committee is looking at ways for students to keep up with schoolwork during protracted absences. Some assignments could be made available on the district's online Parent Access Link, where parents already can check on their children's attendance and grades.
In preparation for staff absences, Medford school officials said they are beefing up their substitute teacher list and encouraging teachers to prepare lesson plans a week in advance so they don't come into classrooms and infect others.
Schools plan to inform parents on ways to prevent and respond to the spread of the virus through school newsletters and the district's Web site, www.medford.k12.or.us.
Medford school officials also plan to increase the frequency that surfaces such as desks and doors are disinfected. Some surfaces will be disinfected as often as daily, since the virus can survive on objects for two to eight hours, Tong said.
Reach reporter Paris Achen at 776-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.