Keeping children healthy - without scaring them - is goal

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

On a scale of one to 10, Ben Spaulding rates his fear of contracting H1N1 flu an eight. But, the 11-year-old said his anxiety is more about what he would miss. "If I got it, then I can't play football, and when I came back, I'd have a lot of work to catch up on in school," said Ben, a fifth-grader at Buckeye Valley North Elementary School in northern Delaware County.

You can't blame a kid for worrying these days. When they're not being told to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds - long enough to sing a song - they are being reminded to cough into their elbow, use hand sanitizer, keep their fingers out of their mouths, avoid water fountains and go straight to the nurse's office if they feel the least bit achy at school.

Children younger than 18 are in one of the highest-risk groups for contracting the viral disease, also known as swine flu, and developing severe symptoms, but those interviewed last month weren't panicking. "I'm just cautious," said Anna Cox, 11, another fifth-grader at Buckeye Valley North. "I'm not really nervous, but the way people talk about it, I think it can make you a little nervous."

Buckeye Valley was one of the first districts in central Ohio to see an upswing of illness-related absences this school year. During the last week of September, the 2,400-student district hit a peak of 270 absences, many of them at the middle school and high school. Since then, said district Superintendent John Schiller, illness has been creeping into Buckeye Valley's three elementary schools.

Statewide, 20 school buildings and two child-care centers have closed because of high illness rates since the school year started, Ohio Department of Health spokesman Kristopher Weiss said. The four closings in central Ohio have all been charter schools in Franklin County.

Stemming the spread of germs without scaring students is a challenge for educators, said Katherine Cowan, a spokeswoman for the National Association of School Psychologists, based in Bethesda, Md.

The organization, along with the national Parent Teacher Association and the National Association of School Nurses, released guidelines this year for talking about the H1N1 virus with children. "There's a very fine line on this issue of reinforcing the importance of proper prevention and not turning it into a crisis that doesn't exist," Cowan said. "Kids can handle just about anything, but they take their cues from adults."

Because the flu also brings with it a slightly heightened risk of death, some children will worry more, Cowan said. In central Ohio, there has been one reported school-age death - Whitehall eighth-grader Jon Fowler, who died Oct. 8. "A parent has to understand how their child understands death and address it at their level," Cowan said. "But you also have to reinforce for them that there is a difference between possibility and probability."

With most youngsters, Buckeye Valley North Principal Barry Lyons said, he sees H1N1 as "a huge teaching moment." Talking to parents, who are more likely to panic "because it gets so hyped in the media," can be frustrating, he said. But, for the most part, Lyons thinks that his staff and students are dealing well with the challenge.

Buckeye Valley North fourth-grader Analise Lajeunesse said she chooses to define the issue in musical terms. "Some people prefer Happy Birthday or Old MacDonald," the 10-year-old explained before demonstrating her hand-washing technique. "But me, I like the ABCs."

Straight talk

Tips for talking to children about H1N1 flu

  • Remain calm and reassuring: Children will react to and follow your verbal and nonverbal cues.
  • Make yourself available: Children might need extra attention and want to talk about their concerns.
  • Know the symptoms of H1N1, also known as swine flu, and how it spreads.
  • Review basic hygiene practices.
  • Be honest and accurate: In the absence of factual information, children often imagine situations far worse than reality. Contact your school nurse or pediatrician for factual information.
  • Discuss new rules or practices at school.
  • Monitor television viewing and access to information on the Internet.
  • Maintain a normal routine to the extent possible: Keeping to a regular schedule promotes physical health.
  • Communicate with your school and follow all instructions from it.

Sources: National Association of School Psychologists, Parent Teacher Association and National Association of School Nurses