October 27, 2009 in Idaho

Flu affects Idaho school attendance

By The Spokesman-Review

BOISE - Idaho education officials are bracing for a raft of waiver requests from school districts that have seen student attendance suffer from the flu - and don’t want the drop in attendance to hurt their district’s state funding.

Idaho bases its funding allocation to districts for the first half of the year on average daily attendance reports for the first seven weeks of school - the very time when the H1N1 flu, in many cases, has dramatically impacted school attendance.

“We did spike about a week ago - we had a couple schools that had up to 25 and 30 percent absentee,” said Coeur d’Alene School District Superintendent Hazel Bauman. Attendance is now back up, she said, but “it has reached that threshold … We will be submitting a request for a waiver.”

Melissa McGrath, spokeswoman for the Idaho State Department of Education, said such waiver requests normally are very rare. The department typically receives only about one a year, usually driven by an early snow day or some such unusual event. This year, however, it’s already received one request, from the South Lemhi School District in eastern Idaho (for a “significant drop in attendance as a result of the flu” for two weeks in October), and it’s heard from many more than have them in the works.

“We’ve been getting a lot of calls asking about it,” McGrath said. “We know that there have been more absent than usual at this time of year because of H1N1. Usually the flu season starts in November and goes into January - this just started the flu season so much earlier.”

A district’s funding won’t be impacted if its local school board passes a resolution, then sends information to the state department on which schools were affected and on which dates. The board for the state’s largest school district, Meridian, was scheduled to pass such a resolution last night.

“If this procedure wasn’t in place, we’d be pretty concerned, because you’d be looking at essentially a 10 percent decrease in your funding,” said Eric Exline, Meridian school district public information officer. Districtwide, absenteeism there has been running at 14.5 percent, he said, up from the usual 4.5 percent, and one school has hit 17 percent.

Jerry Keane, superintendent of the Post Falls School District, said his district also will apply for a waiver. “Pretty much any superintendent that I’ve talked to has indicated that they’re planning to do it,” he said.

Bauman said in Coeur d’Alene, officials considered a possible school closure after Winton Elementary absentee rates hit 30 percent for two days the week before last. But since then, school attendance there has picked back up, she said.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that at least for now, we’re seeing a respite,” Bauman said. “One of the disappointing factors is that our school-based vaccination clinics have had to be postponed because of a shortage of vaccines, so we’re only about a third of the way through our clinics, and the delay is obviously going to allow for more infections to occur.”

Washington school officials said school funding there isn’t affected by the flu because it’s based on enrollment, rather than attendance.

Bauman said the issue points up a problem with Idaho’s funding system. “One thing I would support is a look at funding being based on enrollment vs. attendance,” she said. “I understand why the state likes attendance, because it’s an incentive for schools and districts to then really promote coming to school, but we would do that anyway.” Many of Idaho school districts’ costs are fixed, for everything from staff contracts to utilities, regardless of variances in attendance, she said.

“So if the costs are fixed, it would be nice if the funding mechanism would follow that and not be subject to these other vagaries of things outside our control such as illness.”

Staff writer Jody Lawrence-Turner contributed to this report.

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