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Day schools taking measures to prevent swine flu’s spread

Schoolchildren who are feeling ill will be asked to stay home to avoid possibly spreading their symptoms. (Brymo / Creative Commons / JTA Staff)

Schoolchildren who are feeling ill will be asked to stay home to avoid possibly spreading their symptoms. (Brymo / Creative Commons / JTA Staff)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Some schools are pouring bleach over desks. Others are stocking bathrooms with anti-bacterial soap.

As summer vacation nears an end and students set to return to classrooms, Jewish schools throughout the United States are adopting new health safety measures out of concern for potential outbreaks of swine flu in the fall.

"We are very proactive," Jill Kessler, head of the Pardes Jewish Day School in Phoenix, Ariz., told JTA. "Two nurses will be on the premises for the first few days of school to keep an eye open for any signs of illness among the children. We have asked every student to bring in wipes and hand sanitizer, and we will ensure that all of the teachers are washing tables with bleach to get the germs off the tables. Our environment has been very clean and we will try to keep it as germ-free as possible. "

While the spread of swine flu, known as the H1NI virus, has slowed since it appeared last spring, health officials are concerned about a second major wave of infections once flu season begins.

Of the 45,926 confirmed swine flu cases in the United States, 436 have been fatal, according to the World Health Organization.

"We certainly do expect the flu to return in the fall," said Dr. Michael Serlin, chief of infectious diseases at North General Hospital in New York. "H1N1 doesn’t seem to be any more virulent than any other flu, but because it hasn’t existed until now there’s no vaccine and that’s why it’s spread very fast."

Scientists around the world are racing to develop an effective vaccine in time for flu season.

Meanwhile, concern over the potential spread of the disease has increased at Jewish schools after a number of swine flu cases were reported at Jewish camps across the United States this summer. In one instance, more than a dozen children and staff members at a Jewish summer camp outside Houston, Texas, were placed in quarantine after they came down with the virus.

In nearby Austin, Bernice Tabak, head of the Austin Jewish Academy, said her staff was preparing — but not panicking.

"We have issued several memoranda issuing the guidelines we have gleaned from different health sources," Tabak said. "We run a flu clinic and we encourage all our faculty to participate."

California has been among the areas most affected this summer by influenza. A spate of cases of common flu and a number of H1N1 fatalities have led to the state’s inclusion on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control list of places where the virus is widespread. Maine, Alaska and Puerto Rico also are on the list.

Dalia Orion-Oz, principal of the Los Angeles Hebrew High School, said her staff would brief parents on the risks of the disease.

"At the beginning of the semester we will send out a letter to our families that children should not be sent to Hebrew High if there is any chance the child has a communicable infection," Orion-Oz said. "We will have anti-bacterial soap always present at our branches, and we will also encourage parents to be mindful of swine flu.”

Rachel Zebrak, the school manager of the Doris and Alex Weber Jewish Community High School in Atlanta, also said sanitizer is one of the main weapons in the war on germs.

"We have switched to anti-bacterial soap in all of our restrooms, we have signs around the school and we will be speaking to the kids about sanitation," Zebrak said. "We have just received this week brochures and will be asking kids who are sick to stay home. We’re just being very careful and following CDC guidelines."

The CDC maintains a Web page with advice on how to prevent the spread of influenza at schools. Children are advised to cover their mouths with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, and to wash their hands regularly.

In Miami, school officials said their experience dealing with hurricanes has informed them on how to cope with a potential mass outbreak of disease.

"We live in a hurricane area, so we have contingency plans for pandemics," said Rabbi Seth Linfield, head of the Lehrman  Community Day School. "That planning includes monitoring in advance, remaining updated on health information, knowing how to deal with a patient on the school premises and to continue learning from home online."

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