Flu preparation among priorities for schools in Brunswick, SAD 75, RSU 1

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BRUNSWICK — As the first day of school approaches, local districts aren’t just preparing classrooms for students, they’re filling hand sanitizer dispensers and coordinating with nurses to ensure a familiar nemesis doesn’t become a full-grown bully.

The antagonist is the H1N1 virus – commonly known as swine flu. While the panic generated by H1N1 outbreak has disappeared, the virus continues to concern health experts, who worry it will surge again this winter. 

In response, the federal Department of Education and the state DOE have established protocols to deal with potential localized outbreaks. In addition, many local school districts are offering free immunizations this fall.

According to the Maine Center for Disease Control, Maine had 354 confirmed H1N1 cases as of Aug. 19, including 19 people hospitalized and one death. Sixty percent of Maine’s cases were people under 25 years old. However, not everyone who is infected is tested for the virus.

In June, a Brunswick High School student was among the confirmed cases. The student was removed from school and treated. No other cases were reported within the district.

Last year, the Brunswick School Department installed hand sanitizers and instructed the janitorial staff to wash desks, two steps recommended by the federal DOE. Superintendent Paul Perzanoski said the district will follow most of the DOE’s guidelines regarding inoculations, too, but he added it will probably do so during school hours, rather than after school or on the weekends. 

“You’re talking about a lot of inoculations,” Perzanoski said, noting that Brunswick has about 2,800 students. “If you do after school or on Saturday, you may not have as many students (vaccinated). You have to weigh that against the disruption of (school programming) if you do it during school hours.”

Perzanoski said school nurses will be consulted before the vaccination schedule is finalized. In the meantime, he said, the district is trying to balance preparing for an outbreak without stirring panic.

“We don’t want to over-do it,” he said. “… It can’t be an emotional reaction. You have to obtain the objective middle ground … some of us who are in our 50s have lived through this type of thing before.”

The vaccinations won’t be mandatory, Perzanoski said, acknowledging that some families’ religious beliefs and distrust of vaccinations may prompt some to opt out. 

“We’ll take each case one at a time,” Perzanoski said.

In addition to H1N1 concerns, some Brunswick students are entering the school year in unfamiliar classrooms. The district closed Hawthorne Elementary School in June in preparation for the construction of a new $28 million elementary school on McKeen Street. Closing Hawthorne to elementary students opened the old building up for other uses, including new offices for district headquarters and a new home for the alternative school, both of which had been located on Union Street.

Most of the students who would have attended Hawthorne will attend classes at Coffin Elementary School.

Longfellow Elementary School will close at the end of the school year.

SAD 75, RSU 1

Meanwhile, in School Administrative District 75, Superintendent Mike Wilhelm said district officials are coordinating what will be a complicated inoculation effort.

“That in itself is a huge proposition,” Wilhelm said, adding that the H1N1 vaccine must be kept in cold storage and that the district is in talks with Mid Coast Hospital about storing the large quantities required.

Vaccinations would be voluntary and would likely occur in school, Wilhelm said.

He said education is another critical piece in preventing the spread of H1N1: teaching students to keep their hands clean, to not touch their eyes, nose or mouth with their hands, to cough into their arm instead of into their hand.

SAD 75 already has a pandemic flu plan that would go into effect if H1N1 became an epidemic, Wilhelm said, a prior response to bird flu concerns.

Regional School Unit 1 Superintendent William Shuttleworth said his schools have a vaccination plan and that the state is in the process of evolving recommendations to Maine school districts.

“Right now they’re still saying (we should) manage it without closing school,” he explained. “Isolate children who are clearly identified as having swine flu, upgrade the cleaning and the disinfecting of the desks, lockers and tables, and we’ve done a really good job of that.”

On an academic front, one of SAD 75’s key focuses continues to be its Response to Intervention initiative.

“That whole thing is about universal screening for academic progress, progress monitoring between the screenings, interventions for kids when we notice that they’re starting to falter, so that we can get to them right away and not wait, specifically addressing instructional techniques towards the area of concern; all those sort of pieces are a part of this,” Wilhelm said.

While by the end of the last school year the district had developed a framework for the Response to Intervention model, Wilhelm said, “this year we’re going to focus on how we look at core instruction inside the model, (and) we’re going to focus on literacy instruction K through 12 as fundamental to learning as part of the model.”

Response to Intervention will also look at the district’s approach to student behavioral management, he said.

In that vein, Mt. Ararat Middle School is embarking on a restorative justice model, through which a student who has “acted out” interacts with others affected by the negative behavior.

“If you punish a kid for doing something wrong, the only person who gets impacted for what they’re doing wrong is the kid,” Wilhelm said, noting that through restorative justice the student sees how the act he or she committed affects others.

The interaction could be between a bully and the bullied, for example, or between a student who pulled a fire alarm and the fire chief who had to deal with the prank.

For the first time this year, laptop computers will be available to all high school students, an extension of the existing program for students in grades seven and eight. “Digital citizenship” and appropriate use of the equipment will be among the concepts taught to students as they receive the laptops.

RSU 1 is also expanding its laptop initiative, with all students and staff at Morse High School in Bath to be equipped this year.

The district additionally has a full-time literacy coach and senior projects coordinator at the high school, underscoring RSU 1’s commitment to literacy and establishing student portfolios for continued instruction, according to Shuttleworth.

RSU 1 will strengthen its focus on writing as part of its literacy initiative.

“We really want to have a good look at what we need to do to improve that entire writing process,” Shuttleworth, the superintendent, said. “I think that’s very critical.”

The Bath Regional Vocational Center has a new electricity program this year, for which about 20 students are signed up.

“If you’ve lived in this area and tried to get electricians, you can see that the field is becoming a senior field, and it’s pretty hard to enter that field because of the required education,” Shuttleworth said.

Morse has added three new advanced placement courses: biology, calculus and physics.

Meanwhile, the district’s new wellness policy will go into effect to gradually increase the quality of food offered in RSU 1 cafeterias and to educate families about the value of sending students to school with nutritious lunches and snacks.

Ross Berkowitz is new to the position of assistant principal at Bath Middle School and Morse High, two separate half-time positions through which he will serve as a link for students between eighth and ninth grades.

RSU 1 is also starting pre-kindergarten education for 70 4-year-old students.

“We are so excited by that program,” Shuttleworth said, explaining that RSU 1 will conduct assessments to determine the impact of the pre-K program on areas such as reducing reading difficulties.

Improvements will begin in December at the Huse School in Bath, where RSU 1’s administrative offices and tenants are currently based, in order to facilitate the temporary placement of Woolwich students while the new Woolwich Central School is built. Some Woolwich students will be placed in modular buildings outside the Huse School.

The administrative offices will be moved to the nearby Small School, and the tenants moved to other appropriate locations, Shuttleworth said. By July 2010 the building will be ready for Woolwich school materials to be moved over so that new school construction to begin. Construction is due to conclude in 2012.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net. Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.

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School schedules

Brunswick schools open Monday, Aug. 31:

• Brunswick High School: 7:50 a.m. to 2:20 p.m.

• Brunswick Junior High School: 8 a.m. to 2:40 p.m.

• Elementary schools: 8:55 a.m. to 3:10 p.m.

Bath schools in Regional School Unit 1 open Wednesday, Sept. 2, for kindergarten through grade nine and Thursday, Sept. 3, for grades 10-12:

• Morse High School: 7:40 a.m. to 2:05 p.m.

• Bath Middle School: 7:30 a.m. to 1:55 p.m.

• Dike-Newell and Fisher-Mitchell elementary schools: 8:25 a.m. to 2:40 p.m.

Topsham and Harpswell schools in School Administrative District 75 open Monday, Aug. 31, for kindergarten through grade five and grades seven through nine, and Tuesday, Sept. 1, for grade six and grades 10-12. Wednesday, Sept. 2, will be the first day with all students attending:

• Mt. Ararat High School: 7:47 a.m. (9:10 a.m. Wednesdays) to 2:12 p.m.

• Mt. Ararat Middle School: 7:50 a.m. (9:05 a.m. Wednesdays) to 2:20 p.m.

• Harpswell Islands School: 9:10 a.m. (10:10 a.m. Wednesdays) to 3:30 p.m.

• West Harpswell School: 9 a.m. (10 a.m. Wednesdays) to 3:20 p.m.

• Williams-Cone and Woodside elementary schools: 8:55 a.m. (9:55 a.m. Wednesdays) to 3:15 p.m.