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H1N1, other illnesses jack up D.C. area school absences

Despite numerous vaccination clinics, the absence rates at some area school systems have doubled.
Despite numerous vaccination clinics, the absence rates at some area school systems have doubled. (Gerald Martineau/the Washington Post)
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By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 30, 2009

Waves of swine flu and flulike illnesses are surging through Washington area schools, doubling the normal absence rate in several school systems and leaving some campuses with as many as one-fifth of students out sick.

Although outbreaks linked to the H1N1 virus have shuttered hundreds of schools elsewhere in the nation, local public schools have stayed open this fall. Teachers have been struck ill far less often than students. Tests, lessons and homework go on.

At Osbourn Park High School in Prince William County, the school nurse told Principal Timothy Healey on Monday that she was getting swamped by students with flu symptoms. By midweek, about 19 percent of the school's 2,700 students were out.

"There's a lot of scrambling," Healey said Thursday, when 18 percent were absent. "Getting kids makeup work, parents picking it up. I've even had teachers dropping off assignments at kids' homes."

Healey announced on the school intercom one day that sick students would be given plenty of time to finish incomplete work. "There's pressure, especially the really academically minded kids, panicking because it's the end of the grading period," Healey said. "We're trying to ease that panic."

School officials say a normal absence rate would range from 3 to 5 percent. At midweek, Fairfax County schools reported an absence rate of 6.5 percent. About 8 percent were out in Montgomery, Arlington and Stafford counties and 9 percent in Prince William and Loudoun counties. D.C. school officials reported an October absence rate of 6 percent.

There are no national figures for absence rates. When the swine flu first emerged in the spring, health officials advised schools to shut down if they had confirmed cases. But some educators protested the ensuing disruption of academic calendars. Now, the government wants schools to stay open as much as possible and parents to keep children home if they show symptoms such as fever, aches and cough.

Shutting doors elsewhere

Still, some authorities are shutting schools for flu-related reasons. The U.S. Education Department reported Thursday that 245 schools were closed in 14 states, including in Virginia's Amelia County. That was down from a recent high on Oct. 23 of 351 closures in 19 states, affecting 126,000 students.

The only Washington area school closure related to swine flu this fall was at St. Vincent Pallotti High School in Laurel. The Catholic school shut down for one day this month after about a quarter of its students fell sick.

In Michigan, where as many as 154 schools were reported closed this week, state education spokeswoman Jan Ellis said local health and school officials have the discretion to shut schools based on such variables as the number of students and teachers absent. "They probably are erring on the side of caution," she said. "But when they're closing, they're only closing for a day or two."

Illness is also on the rise on college campuses. A survey of 270 schools by the American College Health Association found flulike illness in 8,861 students, an infection rate of 28 students per 10,000 for the week that ended Oct. 23. The rate had peaked at 25 per 10,000 students in mid-September before declining for three consecutive weeks.

'Have a responsibility'

At Luxmanor Elementary School in Rockville, Principal Ryan Forkert said he was shocked Monday to learn that 20 percent of his 396 students were out. The main office phones kept ringing that morning, he said.


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