Jack Dempsey  /  AP file
Five-year-old Sydney Praznik puts soap on her hands before washing at the Auraria Child Care Center in Denver in early December. Praznik and her classmates wash their hands multilpe times each day to help prevent the spread of the flu.
updated 12/19/2003 5:47:20 PM ET 2003-12-19T22:47:20

With the flu sweeping through schools, teachers and day care aides are finding themselves washing down desks and toys and reminding children to wipe their noses — with a tissue, please — and wash their hands — with soap, young man.

For reasons no one fully understands, the outbreak has struck much earlier and seems to have hit children hard. At least 36 have died — from babies to teenagers — most of them in states west of the Mississippi, including Colorado, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

Across the country, schools and day care centers are using more bleach and Lysol, wiping down desks, floors, counters, doorknobs, drinking fountains and rubber balls.

Even under the best of conditions, day care centers and kindergartens are hothouses for germs. Now instructors have to remind their pint-size charges not to put toys in their mouths and to use Kleenex instead of their sleeves, or someone else’s sleeve.

“Our pre-kindergarten teachers sanitize their classrooms every night,” said principal Karen Curtis of Rancho Santa Fe Elementary School in Arizona, where at least two children have died. “But there’s only so much you can do. What’s a tissue to a little kid? They use their hands.”

Day care operators are holding firm to existing rules that prohibit children running a fever of more than 101 degrees from attending class.

“We have some parents who still try to bring in their kids,” said Sumi Jeong of Academic Play in Denver. “I understand they have to work, but I have to send them home.”

Walking amid squalling babies, Jeong cooed and soothed, stopping to pick up a crying child, who then tried to eat the telephone she was speaking into.

The current flu outbreak may be the nation’s worst for young children in several years, some experts say. They are predicting deaths among infants and toddlers will be higher than the estimated 92 who die in an average flu year.

High absentee rates
In states such as Ohio, West Virginia, Connecticut, Idaho, New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana, schools closed for one or more days last week, with absentee rates as high as 50 percent.

“They were dropping like flies,” said Cathy Buckley, principal of Louisiana’s Spearsville High School, where 65 students out of 291 were sick last week.

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Test your IQ“It is scary, and you really don’t know what to do,” said Laurie Wright of Malad, Idaho, who coordinates the elementary school’s after-school program and is the mother of an 8-year-old boy. “I don’t want to shelter him too much and I don’t want him left behind in school.”

Teachers, too, have taken ill. In Nevada, school districts have been scrambling to find substitutes.

School officials are hoping the Christmas vacation will ease the outbreak by keeping kids home and away from many of their schoolmates for two weeks.

In Colorado, where at least 11 children have died in the nation’s highest toll, emergency rooms are seeing feverish toddlers and desperate parents.

Brian Huckabay of Pueblo, Colo., had twin sons earlier this month. Now he has one. Dezmond and Diego, 20 months old, came down with the flu. Three days later, Dezmond was dead and Diego was in intensive care.

“It was that quick,” Huckabay said.

Diego recovered in three days and was released last week from the hospital.

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