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District's H1N1 findings show improvement in student attendance, good parental efforts

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I am certain that you are all very concerned about the status of H1N1 influenza (swine flu), so I thought I would give you an update on its impact on our school district in this week's column.

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Our school nurse Charlotte Sortedahl and I have met with and stay in close contact with the Pierce County Public Health Director Sue Galoff. Sue is in regular communication with regional and state health officials, and I feel we are lucky to have someone of her caliber to help us through this illness.

As of last week, our district saw definite improvement in school attendance. We had about seven percent of our student body absent when the week ended, and most of those were for illnesses. That number is still higher than attendance rates during the non-flu season, but we are heading in the right direction.

The numbers absent at individual schools have varied pretty dramatically and are constantly changing. Our elementaries in October had much higher absentee rates than the middle and high schools, while absence rates in September were spiking for the middle school and high school. Likewise, about five to eight percent of our staff members or members of their families have also been sick on any given day. These numbers, of course, would not all be from H1N1 flu, although the public health officials have indicated that it's safe to assume that most of our illnesses this round are H1N1 or H1N1-related, not seasonal flu.

I have heard reports that another wave of this flu might come again in January, so we continue to closely monitor our attendance rates daily.

While there are no magic numbers for when school is closed, some schools across the state have closed when an individual building reached the 30-40% student absence rate and, in addition, staff absences made it difficult to conduct school as usual.

While closing for three to five days (including weekends) is typical, closing school hasn't been a very effective strategy for disease control over the long term. Rather, it seems that closing school is used when it is impractical to continue school due to the illness' impact on education, such as not enough staff to conduct classes.

Because of that, I will weigh the pros and cons very carefully and consult with the public health department before determining that an individual school or the entire district would be closed.

Still, it is important that we all be prepared in the event that school is closed. If I need to close school for all or part of the district, I will utilize e-mail, our district's website, television and AlertNow to inform parents and staff.

Guidelines from the state are still being finalized as far as making up the days of school closing, but for now I will operate on the assumption that we will not be making up days if it is a minimal number.

If school is closed, it is the expectation that students and employees in the building(s) closed stay home and away from school.

If school is closed, it is important that you keep children home and away from contact with others who may infect your child.

Since we know this will be a disruption to your home routines and to our school year, we are trying to continue learning as best we can during a school closure. Teachers are expected to continue to provide learning opportunities for students if school were to close due to H1N1 influenza.

During the closure, teachers need to be in contact with students/parents via phone, e-mail, or teacher websites. When possible, they will send home materials with students prior to a school closing.

Although the use of technology for assignments is encouraged, it won't be required, as we know some families don't have Internet access. Teachers have been asked to have a backup plan for students without computer access.

In the event of school or district closure, our district's Central Office will remain open, and any questions parents have may be directed to my staff at 425-1800.

The good news in all of this is that families are really treating this illness seriously and keeping sick children home from school, picking them up at school when they get sick during the day, and monitoring siblings of those who are ill.

I'm really proud of our parents throughout this and grateful that they are treating their children's health with highest priority, as well as trying not to spread the influenza to other children at school.

The not-so-good news came to us last week when we heard from the county that our H1N1 influenza school-based vaccination clinic previously scheduled for Nov. 2 was postponed until Monday, Nov. 23. It seems that the county hasn't received its requested allocation from the state (which has not received it from the federal government) and so the health department has had to postpone all of its school clinics.

Because River Falls will be the largest clinic, we are the last in the county to receive the vaccination in hopes that there will be a greater likelihood that the county will have the 1200-plus doses of vaccine needed for a community our size.

High risk individuals are still able to contact their clinics or the county for earlier vaccinations.

I'm appreciative that families and staff members are staying calm and proactive in this effort. We in the district also really appreciate your patience and understanding in this difficult time with so many uncertainties and questions.

Thank you for all you do to keep your children healthy. Know that we are doing our part in the district to help in the H1N1 influenza illness containment.

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