By Meredith Barnett

Sneezes and sniffles are starting to infiltrate classrooms and flu season is on its way. But schools and health organizations, armed with lessons learned from 2009’s pandemic flu outbreak, are preparing early.

This year, H1N1 poses less of a threat, and schools are better equipped to hold vaccination clinics and continue “sickness etiquette” education with students.

One major change from 2009 to this year is that the seasonal flu vaccine now protects against both seasonal flu and H1N1.

“H1N1 is still an issue, it’s still around but not at pandemic levels anymore,” said Edeanna Chebbi, Program Coordinator for Disease Prevention and Management at NEA’s Health Information Network (HIN).

She stressed the importance of vaccination, and the Center for Disease Control recommends everyone ages six months and older receive either the injected or nasal spray vaccine before flu season’s peak in January and February. Children under five are most vulnerable, and flu spreads rapidly in schools, with the close proximity of students and their tendency to have trouble controlling their germ-spraying sneezes.

Many schools are continuing the practices they initiated while weathering last year’s H1N1 storm, including offering school-located vaccination clinics. Health organizations are encouraging the extended use of such clinics, said Chebbi, because schools can help meet the high demand for vaccination.

Dassa McKinney Elementary in West Sunbury, Pa., for instance, learned the tricks of the vaccination clinic trade last year when it teamed with the community to offer two evening vaccination clinics for faculty members and students.

“I think last year was a testing ground,” said the school’s nurse Maggie Beall. “That was one of the good things that came out of H1N1 — seeing what we could do on a mass rate that could work.”

For many school districts, these clinics forged ties between health organizations and schools that can continue into this flu season. In Pennsylvania’s Perkiomen Valley school district, the local health department has already contacted schools about facilitating more vaccination clinics this year.

“We can offer the flu shots or even the nasal spray during school,” said Perkiomen High School’s nurse Judy Morgitan. “Now that most of us have already done that, it’s not an unknown territory.”

These clinics at schools and in the community are vital to stopping the spread of flu, and vaccinating both school personnel and students provides “herd immunity,” said Chebbi. That’s when high-risk individuals or those that don’t receive a flu vaccination are protected from disease because they won’t get sick from their immune peers.

“As more people got flu shots and had no side effects and didn’t get the flu last year, they may be more willing to get a flu shot again,” Beall also pointed out.

Both Morgitan and Beall, chairs of the NEA School Nurse Caucus, report that their schools will also be continuing the “sickness etiquette” methods put into place in 2009. Like many schools, theirs advocate measures like handwashing and the “Dracula pose” (coughing to the elbow), with posters, signs and web announcements. Dassa McKinney Elementary also set up a “sick room” where sick students can wait for parent pick-up without exposing others to germs, which they will continue to use this year. Students and staff members are encouraged to stay home when they are sick.

This communication with students, faculty members and parents is key to preventing the spread of flu, according to the HIN’s Pandemic Flu Guide, which can be found here. The Center for Disease Control and the NEA HIN created a variety of resources in 2009 to help schools disseminate information about flu prevention and care, and they are offering these on their websites again this year.

Photo: James Gathany/CDC