September 24, 2009 in City

Sick days spreading

School districts strategize in case of worsening student illness rates
By The Spokesman-Review
Colin Mulvany photo

East Valley Middle School custodians Bev Bjerke and David Gerard are working extra hours to sanitize areas touched by students and staff members, such as library shelves. The school has canceled some activities because of high
(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 canceled after-school activities two days in a row because of an unusually high number of sick students. Nearly 10 percent of Coeur d’Alene High School’s students have been absent so far this week, and 21 percent of the students at Central Valley’s Barker High School 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 in January and is most noticeable in the school districts from February through April.

“This year, we are starting now,” said Mark Springer, a Spokane 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.”

To track the easily spread virus, the Spokane 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; 10 percent of Evergreen Middle School students were out for two days, officials said.

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

To address concerns about the virus’ spread, East Valley Middle School boosted its 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,” Purvine said.

Officials have also been reminding students and staff to wash their hands and follow 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 increase, district spokeswoman Melanie Rose said.

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

If a school reached 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,” she said.

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

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

Springer said there’s no cause for alarm now.

“We are seeing predominately mild illness (related to the swine flu),” he said. “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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