SMMUSD HDQTRS — Local schools will soon be getting thousands of surgical masks as a precaution against a flu outbreak, courtesy of the federal government.

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District is slated to receive 22,000 of the masks — about two for each student — along with rubber gloves and some heavier-duty “respirator masks” for adults who care for sick kids.

So far this school year, though, the effects of the flu — whether a seasonal strain or the H1N1 swine flu virus — have been mild in public schools, said Jane Jeffries, the district’s coordinating nurse.

Though more kids got sick in October than is typical, flu cases dropped off in December, she said, and there have been no hospitalizations because of the flu in the district.

“Do I see us using 22,000 masks? No,” Jeffries said, adding that the gift is “very, very nice.” Some of the supplies will be added to the district’s natural disaster preparedness stash, she said.

While surgical masks were widely used in some areas where the swine flu virus was first detected this spring, the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines for curbing the spread of the virus in schools underline the importance of normal flu season precautions. Students and staff should stay home when sick, wash hands frequently with soap and water and cover their noses and mouths with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.

The guidelines also say those who have flu-like symptoms while at school should be separated from others until they can be sent home and should wear a surgical mask if possible.

Jeffries said, so far, masks haven’t been an important part of the district’s flu fighting procedures.

“At this point we haven’t used any of the masks. We haven’t had a need to,” she said.

Kids who have flu symptoms at school, instead, are kept in isolation until they can be taken home, she said.

Jeffries, though, said the masks could be useful to prevent the spread of the flu among kids who show up at the nurse’s office, where some kids may have flu symptoms and others may not. There’s no plan to widely distribute the masks at schools, which Jeffries said would probably do more to spread fear than to promote health.

Rick De La Torre, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which is overseeing the program locally, defended the usefulness of giving out thousands of masks.

“We think that having those on hand can’t hurt and making them available, I think, is the name of the game in terms of prevention and awareness,” he said.

The masks are being provided by the California Emergency Management Agency, which bought 23 million masks and gloves for the state’s schools as a precaution against the spread of the H1N1 flu virus using $2.5 million in federal grant funds.

“In order to prevent the spread of disease, the federal H1N1 guidance for schools calls for the use of personal protective equipment in situations in which a student becomes ill while on campus,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell said. “Thanks to federal grant funding, we can provide masks and gloves called for in the guidance to schools free of charge.”

The county education office is storing the masks until school districts pick them up. Not all of the gloves and respirator masks have arrived at the county’s warehouse in Santa Fe Springs, so some districts, including SMMUSD, are waiting to pick up their supplies. All of the supplies are expected to be available well before kids return for classes in January.

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