Schools are on flu alert
School officials across Rock and Walworth counties said Tuesday there’s no magic number for deciding when to close schools for the flu.
“We’re going to do our very best to stay open no matter what,” said Milton Superintendent Bernie Nikolay.
Starting today, school district administrators have authority to close schools for safety or health reasons, such as the H1N1 flu, more commonly known as swine flu.
State law previously allowed only local health officers to order schools closed for such reasons.
Swine flu appears to be spreading in Rock and Walworth counties.
Walworth elementary and middle schools closed Tuesday for the rest of the week after more than 30 percent of students fell ill.
Walworth District Administrator Pam Knorr told the Gazette on Monday that four teachers and three teacher aides also were sick.
The district consulted with Pat Grove, the health officer in Walworth County, as well as the state Department of Health Services before deciding to close school, Knorr said.
The schools are scheduled to reopen Monday, Oct. 26.
A new state law now gives administrators authority to close schools for more than just inclement weather, said Rachel Gallagher, school nurse consultant for the state Department of Public Instruction.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean days would be tacked onto the end of the school year.
The new law waives the requirement for a minimum number of days of instruction, said Patrick Gasper, communications officer for the state Department of Public Instruction.
State law previously allowed districts to miss up to five days for inclement weather or other reasons without having to make up the days. The new state law allows districts to closed school for longer without having to make up days, Gasper said.
However, the law still requires districts to provide a minimum number of hours of instruction, Gasper said. Grades 1 to 6 must receive 1,050 hours of instruction, and grades 7 to 12 must receive 1,137 hours, he said.
To meet the minimum hours requirement without adding days at the end of the school year, school districts could add minutes to each school day for the rest of the year, he said.
Because the Walworth district closed schools before the new state law went into effect, it might have to apply for a waiver so it doesn’t have to make up the three days students are missing this week, Gasper said.
‘It would take a lot’
District officials in Rock and Walworth counties reported student absences of 10 to 20 percent for schools where flu has hit the hardest. But officials declined to name a specific threshold that would cause them to close schools.
“That’s been on my mind quite a bit. What would we do?” said Phil McMahon, principal at Woods School in Geneva Township. “I suppose if we got up around 30 percent or one-third of the student body, we would seriously consider closing.”
Several district officials said they’re looking just as hard at staff absences as student absences.
“I think staff absences is a significant issue because that relates directly to how well or how safe the students are and the level of education that they’re going to be able to maintain,” said Mat Haeger, manager of health and safety for the Janesville School District.
District officials reported staff absences only in the single digits so far.
Deciding to close school is not an easy decision for school districts to make—and district officials are not taking their responsibilities lightly.
“It would take a lot for us to close,” said Big Foot District Administrator Dorothy Kaufmann.
Students have projects to complete and exams to take before the end of the term, she said. They also have extracurricular activities that require them to be in school, she said.
“We wouldn’t make that decision in isolation,” Kaufmann said.
The state Department of Public Instruction recommends districts work closely with local health officers when weighing whether to close school because of illness.
School districts are taking steps to deal with the flu.
Several are asking sick students to wear surgical masks while waiting for parents to pick them up. They also are asking parents to describe their children’s symptoms when they report absences so the schools know how many students could have the flu.
School employees are trying to create as little disruption as possible to children’s education during the outbreak, Nikolay said.
Milton teachers, for example, are preparing take-home lessons in case school has to be closed. They probably will use e-mail and packets to keep students plugged into education if schools close, he said.
FLU IN SCHOOL
Most area school districts reported between 10 and 15 percent of students absent early this week.
Beloit Turner School District: The superintendent could not be reached Tuesday.
Clinton School District: About 9 percent of students were absent Tuesday from the elementary school, 10 percent from the middle school and 5 percent from the high school, Superintendent Pam Kiefert said.
Edgerton School District: Superintendent Norm Fjelstad said he doesn’t keep figures for district-wide absences, but he believes the district has had fewer cases of the flu than other districts. Aundrea Kerkenbush, elementary principal, said 10 to 15 percent of students at Community and Yahara elementary schools have been absent in the last few days.
Evansville School District: The superintendent could not be reached for comment.
Janesville School District: Between 9 and 10 percent of students were absent because of illness district-wide Monday, said Mat Haeger, manager of health and safety. Illness-related absences varied from 6 percent at one school to 13 percent at Marshall Middle School.
Milton School District: Absenteeism has been highest at the high school, where about 15 percent were gone Friday and Monday, Superintendent Bernie Nikolay said. That’s about twice as much as normal.
Parkview School District: Newark Elementary has been hit hardest with 16 percent of students absent on Monday and 14 percent Tuesday, Superintendent Steve Lutzke said. Rates have ranged from zero to 5 percent at the other two elementary schools while the junior/senior high school had 6 percent of students absent this week.
Big Foot High School: District Administrator Dorothy Kaufmann said 50 students, or about 10 percent of students at the high school, and five staff members, or about 11 percent, were out sick Tuesday. The school hit a high early last week with 13 percent of students and 16 percent of staff absent, she said.
Delavan-Darien School District: District officials could not be reached Tuesday.
East Troy School District: District officials could not be reached Tuesday.
Elkhorn School District: District Administrator Greg Wescott said between 8 and 10 percent of students have been absent recently, and about a quarter of them have had flu-like symptoms. “We went through a bout of this last spring—more than some of the districts around us—so I don’t know if that’s having an impact this fall or not,” he said.
Fontana School District: District Administrator Mark Wenzel said the district hit its high three or four weeks ago, when 60 students, or about 22 percent, were absent. But students and staff continue to be absent because of illness, he said. Between 10 and 20 students have been absent in the last week, while only one or two staff members have called in sick in the last week, he said.
Woods School: Principal Phil McMahon said the school has seen as much as 18 percent of students absent. “So far we haven’t been hit that hard,” he said.
Brookwood elementary and middle schools: District officials could not be reached Tuesday.
Lake Geneva School District: District officials could not be reached Tuesday.
Traver School: District officials could not be reached Tuesday.
Reek School: District Administrator Lillian Henderson said nine students were out sick Tuesday and only eight were absent Monday, which is about 6 or 7 percent. “So far, so good,” she said.
Sharon Community School: District Administrator Steve Huebbe said between 8 and 12 percent of students have been absent in the last week, but it’s unclear how many are out sick with flu-like symptoms. “We’ll keep watching it,” he said.
Walworth elementary and middle schools: District Administrator Pam Knorr said more than 30 percent of students were out sick or sent home sick Monday. Four teachers and three teachers aides also were sick, she said. The schools, which are in the same building, are closed through the rest of the week. The schools are scheduled to reopen Monday, Oct. 26.
Whitewater School District: District officials could not be reached Tuesday.
Williams Bay School District: District officials could not be reached Tuesday.