September 23, 2009 in City

Schools suspect swine flu in early attendence drop

By The Spokesman-Review
Colin Mulvany photo

With a dramatic rise in students coming down with flu symptoms this week, East Valley Middle School custodians Bev Bjerke and David Gerard are working extra hours to sanitize the school’s common surfaces such as in the library Wednesday Sept 23, 2009. (COLIN MULVANY
(Full-size photo)

Swine flu is likely to blame for higher-than-normal absences at Inland Northwest public schools, officials say.

East Valley Middle School cancelled after-school activities two days in a row because of an unusually high number of sick kids. Nearly 10 percent of Coeur d’Alene High School’s students were absent so far this week, and 21 percent of the students at Central Valley’s Barker High have been ill for three days.

“It’s not typical to have this many out sick so early in the year,” said Mark Purvine, principal at East Valley Middle School, where 16 percent of the students were absent.

Flu season usually arrives sometime in January, and is most noticeable in the school districts February through April. “This year, we are starting now,” said Mark Springer, a Spokane County Regional Health District epidemiologist. “We had flu activity throughout the summer, which is not typical. It really didn’t go away. Now that school is back in session we are seeing a lot more transmission occur.”

Testing for the H1N1 virus is only done on those who are hospitalized, but there’s a strain health officials identify in less expensive, faster tests that they say is likely the swine flu.

To track the easily spread virus, the Spokane County Regional Health District requested that districts report when absences reach 10 percent or more at each school, district officials said.

In addition to the absences at Barker High, the district reported more than 10 percent of Bowdish Middle School students were out Wednesday, for the third day in a row; Evergreen Middle School had 10 percent of its students out for two days, officials said.

West Valley and Spokane Public school districts’ absenteeism is normal so far, officials said. However, North Central High School postponed its volleyball games against Lake City scheduled for today because too many players were out sick.

To address concerns of the disease spreading at East Valley Middle School, Purvine increased cleaning efforts. The custodial staff is working extra hours to “clean desk tops, doorknobs, glass and any surface they think might have had human contact,” he said.

Officials have also been reminding students and staff about washing their hands and illness etiquette, such as coughing into your sleeve, he added.

Central Valley has formed an H1N1 task force, which is discussing the best course of action should absences reach higher levels, said district spokeswoman Melanie Rose.

“We are planning for a building-by-building situation,” Rose said.

If a school was to reach a 30 percent absence rate for six days, that school may be dismissed, she said. “That’s a trigger point we are considering, but it may be before or after that.”

The task force also has to determine what to do if a majority of food service workers or bus drivers fall ill, she said.

Meanwhile, health officials recommend getting flu shots as soon as possible.

Springer said at this time there’s no cause for alarm. “We are seeing predominately mild illness (related to the swine flu). It’s different in that it’s affecting different age groups, but we are going to have vaccinations within a month.”

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