One by one, the kindergartners at McDowell Mountain Elementary School hold out their hands and wait for their daily squirt of sanitizer.
As the children rub their hands, the principal and teachers at the Fountain Hills school hope this extra dose of disinfectant will help keep students and staff well.
But they know more than likely there will still be sniffles, sneezes and upset stomachs.
This is flu season — one of the Valley’s worst flu seasons in years — and few places attract germs as much as a classroom full of children.
"Whatever it is that’s going around, we’ve had it," said McDowell Mountain principal Joanne Meehan.
Across the East Valley, schools have seen a spike in student and teacher absences over the past few weeks.
Many of the absences, officials said, appear to be due to the flu.
"It seems to be lasting three, four, five days," said Gwen Flem- ing, health assistant at Chandler’s Erie Elementary School. "Parents send their kids back to school too soon. It becomes a vicious cycle."
In the Tempe Elementary School District, 881 students were absent Dec. 3 — up from 598 absences on the same day in 2002.
"We’ve been seeing quite a few kids going home every day with coughs, colds, stomachaches, fevers. We’ve seen a lot of teachers, too," said Trish Lamb, a registered nurse at Tempe’s Meyer Elementary School.
Teacher absences also are up in the Scottsdale Unified School District. Typically, Scottsdale schools have 100 to 120 teachers absent each day. Last Monday and Tuesday, there were 135 teacher absences. By Thursday, that number rose to 148.
The Gilbert Unified School District had no numbers available, but officials said they also are seeing increased teacher and student absences — despite flu shots being provided to district employees, parents and others living in neighborhoods around Gilbert schools.
"Absences are up — especially in the east part of the district," said Sherry Shinn, director of health services. "It’s in the east, and it’s moving west."
Judi Willis, spokeswoman for the Mesa Unified School District, said that although Mesa’s schools have not had an unusually high number of absences lately, the district will send health tips to schools today to be given to parents. Schools will not recommend that children get flu shots, Willis said, adding that’s a medical decision.
"Parents should talk to their child’s doctor, who know their child’s history far better than the school nurse," she said.
School nurses say parents can help cut down on the spread of flu and other illnesses by keeping children home when they run fevers of 99 or 100, cough or sneeze constantly, or have continual headaches. Sick children not only spread germs to others but also cannot concentrate in the classroom.
"An adult might go to work with a bad headache, but for children, it’s pretty debilitating," Fleming said.
She added that parents can help prevent their children from getting sick in the first place by teaching them to wash their hands properly and making sure they eat right and get enough rest.
"Many kids are not getting enough sleep," Fleming said.
Among teachers, it’s often the first-year teachers who suffer the most illness during the school year. "It’s things in a teacher’s world — 20 children coughing and sneezing at you — they’re not used to," Shinn said. "They’ve never been around all these little kids."
But over time, school nurses say, teachers and others working with children are able to build up some immunity.
"When I first started out, I got sick quite a bit," said Patti Gleason, a 20-year teaching veteran who teaches 4- and 5-year-olds in the "kindergarten prep" program at Gilbert’s Neely Elementary School.
Now, she’s more immune — and a lot more aware of the importance of developing healthy habits.
"I work out on a regular basis and I take vitamin C and echinacea," she said.
She also regularly bleaches toys and tables in her classroom and airs out the room daily. And, she teaches her preschoolers to cough and sneeze into their shoulders or elbows instead of their hands.
"Anytime we see a child cough or sneeze into their hands, they must wash their hands with soap and water," Gleason said.
Gleason washes her own hands several times a day. "Washing your hands — oh my gosh — it’s the best way to stay healthy," she said.
At McDowell Mountain, Meehan said she and her staff are washing their hands raw. Teachers aide Karin Racich has the rough, red knuckles to prove it.
"We disinfect the tables. We wash our hands constantly," Racich said, adding that she also takes an assortment of vitamins every day to stay healthy.
But even after all that, germs remain.
"I had a horrible sinus infection a few weeks ago, and another teacher had pneumonia," Racich said.
Five-year-old Jorgianna Katsafouros said her teachers and classmates need to do a better job of washing their hands. The trick, the kindergartner said, is to make sure your hands are sudsy long enough before you rinse them.
"You have to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to yourself two times," she said. "Then they’re clean."