School asthma gains fall short of breathtaking

For the roughly one in five youths in San Francisco with asthma, getting through the school day can be like navigating a minefield of mold, dust and pollen that can trigger an asthma attack.

In 2002, three children died during asthma attacks in facilities owned by the San Francisco Unified School District, said Anjali Nath, advocacy coordinator with the San Francisco Asthma Task Force. One of the children was Armani Johnson, 4, who died in a restroom in Burnett Children’s Center after complaining of breathing problems.

“The teachers weren’t trained in pediatric asthma,” said Anjali’s mother, Natasha Madaris. “I think his death opened the door [for school employees] to realize that other kids have asthma — and the district is making progress.”

But although Madaris as well as city and nonprofit officials say the San Francisco Unified School District is making strides toward creating safe classrooms for children with asthma, it has fallen behind in filing emergency plans for those students, and has not yet claimed grant money to make classroom conditions ideal for asthmatic students.

The San Francisco Board of Education adopted plans in 2003 to make sure all students with asthma have a set of instructions on file in case of an asthma attack. While roughly more than 2,000 parents per year send those instructions to their schools, 275 have been entered into school databases, primarily due to lack of staff to perform data entry, Nath said.

“More than that have asthma,” Nath said. “The fact that we don't have the data system is preventing us from having a full grasp of the prevalence.”

Bay Area youths age 5 to 17 have the highest asthma rates in the nation — 19.8 percent, compared with 14.2 percent nationwide — according to a 2005 survey from the Centers for Disease Control.

The district also has not claimed grant money for 29 San Francisco schools eligible for asthma-prevention funds under the Williams Settlement, which aims to give students equal access to education, said Karen Cohn, a children’s health manager at the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

Those funds would be used to step up prevention efforts — making sure classroom air filters are changed regularly, that ventilation systems are working, that schools use cleaning products that don’t irritate children’s airways and that animals aren’t kept in school, Nath said.

One significant improvement, however, was the district’s February hiring of a new part-time coordinator, who will train teachers, help write grant proposals and identify asthma risks in city classrooms, Cohn said.

bwinegarner@examiner.com

Youth asthma facts

The breathing disorder affects children at school and inside the home.

» Asthma accounts for more than 14 million total school absences

» Asthma is the most common chronic condition among children

» 44 percent of all asthma hospitalizations are for children

» Asthma is the No. 3 cause of hospitalization for children

» The Asthma-related death rate for children under 19 has increased almost 80 percent since 1980.

Source: Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America

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