Flu is hitting the country hard, especially in schools. There's no official tally, but there are reports of closures of a day or more in at least a dozen states because so many students and teachers are ill.
At least 37 children have died due to flu-related causes this season, according to the latest numbers from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- and agency officials said there are still many more weeks of flu season to come for most of the country.
The Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in suburban Chicago is one of them. For the first time in its 30-year history, the Aurora school closed for almost a week due to the flu. On Friday, January 19 there were 25 students who stayed out of class due to flu-like symptoms. By Monday, 88 students were sick and 23% of the faculty were sick with flu-like symptoms, too. Since the school is a residential campus for 10th, 11th and 12th graders, and since the illness spread so rapidly, school officials decided to close its campus, under advisement of the local hospital and health department. The students, who come from counties all over the state, were sent home as a preventive measure. Classes are expected to start again on January 29.
"We all wanted to nip this in the bud before it got worse," said Tami Armstrong, the school's director of public affairs. The cleaning crew, however, did not get the week off. In fact, they got extra work, having to wipe down all the hard surfaces in the dorms and academic buildings to prevent further spread of the flu.
The Illinois school is not alone.
In Port St. Joe, Florida, Gulf District Schools Superintendent Jim Norton told CNN the district decided to close school Friday after more than one-quarter of its 1,900 students and one-third of the 150 teachers called out sick this week due to the flu. The schools are scheduled to reopen next week. The announcement on the closing said buildings will be cleaned and sanitized Friday and sick students will be given a change to recover.
Similarly ,the Russellville School District in Arkansas closed all of its 10 schools Friday January 19 "due to the high number of students experiencing flu-like symptoms." Students were back in class on Monday January 22.
In Oklahoma, the Hugo schools were also closed for a couple of days due to the flu. The district's website said that the schools would be sanitized to keep the flu from spreading. It also offered parents advice on when to know if students were too sick to go to school. A flyer from the Oklahoma Department of Health suggested children might be too sick for school if they have fever, diarrhea or vomiting, rash, cough or sore throat or "other conditions" and advised parents to talk to the school nurse or administrators about exclusion policies for these or other illnesses.
In the state of Texas, officials encouraged "anyone with symptoms to stay home and to see their health care provider, as antiviral medications may shorten the duration of their illness." Amid an outbreak in San Antonio, one school took that advice and closed for a "flu day" a couple of weeks ago.
In Michigan, the Kalamazoo Public Schools website said while most schools were below the health department's 20% flu-related absentee level for closure, "as a precaution, all KPS schools will be cleaned and disinfected over the upcoming weekend." Elsehwere in the state on Friday, all Gull Lake Community Schools in Richland were closed "due to high illness rates." Activities were canceled, and staff were told not to report, according to the schools' website.
In Alabama, where the Governor declared a state of emergency on January 11 due to the current flu outbreak, some schools have also been closed including in Huntsville. State health officials asked schools and businesses to consider waiving sick policies.
With the pressures to get all the lessons in, a decision to close a school is never easy, but school officials think caution is key when it comes to preventing additional children from getting sick.
"If we hadn't closed when we did, I wouldn't have wanted to be having a conversation with anyone about why more kids were sick and we didn't do our best to keep students safe," said Armstrong of Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. "Their health and well-being is our number one priority."
Schools around the country are closing because children and teachers are sick with flu
Cleaning crews are wiping down hard surfaces to keep the illness from spreading