Respiratory illnesses force schools to close, hurting attendance efforts

Schools in several states have temporarily closed as fast-spreading respiratory illnesses increase student absences. But this time, COVID-19 is not to blame.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that the country is experiencing an upsurge in two seasonal illnesses – influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV – that is much earlier and more intense than in a typical year.

And it’s keeping affected children out of the classroom at a crucial time when educators are going to great lengths to restore school attendance habits. which cratered during the pandemic. Student absences are a concern for school leaders, even if they are considered excused, said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, an organization that promotes ways to measure and address chronic absenteeism.

“Even if we know a child is missing school for health reasons, we still have to worry about them…especially if they were already struggling [with academics or attendence] before illness,” as many students were, she said.

RSV is a respiratory virus that usually causes mild cold-like symptoms. While most people recover in a week or two, RSV can be serious for young children and the elderly, said Dr. Jose Romero, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, during a briefing. a recent call with reporters. While RSV rates typically peak seasonally alongside flu cases during the winter months, authorities have tracked an unusually early peak in cases of both illnesses this year, he said.

“We suspect that many children are being exposed to certain respiratory viruses for the first time, having avoided those viruses during the height of the pandemic,” Romero said.

Hospitals reach capacity

The surge in respiratory illnesses has prompted children’s hospitals across the country to warn that they have reached capacity. In Pittsburgh, the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center Children’s Hospital set up a tent outside its emergency room last week to deal with an influx of children reporting major respiratory symptoms, such as difficulty breathing and a severe cough.

Schools are also feeling the effects, with some switching to distance learning or closing for several days to slow the spread within their buildings.

In Indiana, the local school district of Lynchburg-Clay canceled elementary school and sent middle and high school students home for remote learning Nov. 3-4 after several days when about 20% of students — and many staff – were out with the flu, Superintendent Jack Fisher told Education Week.

“Given the circumstances of the past two years and staffing levels, we are a little quicker to make immediate course corrections, such as closing for a brief period, instead of plowing as we did before” , did he declare.

Like many school systems, the district was already operating on very tight margins before the flu outbreak, Fisher said. The district has struggled to hire adequate classified personnel, and the pool of replacements for positions like bus drivers and helpers is “razor thin,” he said. So when key student support staff fell ill, it became difficult to operate in person.

After Williamstown, Ky., schools faced a similar staffing dilemma and rising student absentee rates, district leaders canceled classes for the first week of November.

We suspect that many children are being exposed to certain respiratory viruses for the first time, having avoided these viruses at the height of the pandemic.

Dr. Jose Romero, Director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases

“Our student attendance was down, then we started to have staff, and we were starting to struggle to cover classrooms with the shortage of substitutes,” said Todd Dupin, director of staff and operations. students on local news station Fox 19..

At least 26 of Kentucky’s 171 school systems have closed or gone remote due to widespread illness so far in November, the Kentucky School Boards Association said.

Schools and districts in states including Alabama, Louisiana, Michigan, Virginia and Wisconsin have seen similar closures in recent weeks. Some districts that were closed for Election Day also chose to take the previous Monday to give custodial staff time to deep clean and students time to heal.

Influenza, RSV and other common seasonal illnesses are spread by inhaling droplets thrown into the air when infected people cough or sneeze. They can also live on surfaces like desks and toys, spreading through touch.

In his advice to schools on the fluthe CDC recommends many strategies that also reduce the risk of RSV transmission: regular hand washing, advising students to cover their mouths when coughing, advising families to keep children home until they are fever-free for at least 24 hours, regular disinfection of surfaces, and communication with local health authorities to monitor possible epidemics.

During a press briefing last week, CDC officials also pointed out that variants of COVID-19 continue to spread, emphasizing the importance of vaccinations to prevent serious illness. The warning came after most schools lifted the most intense pandemic precautions, like universal masking requirements.

Fight against chronic absenteeism

The combination of illnesses has created a new challenge for school systems that were already concerned about chronic absenteeism, long before two years of pandemic-related disruptions upended their student engagement efforts.

Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, 36 states and the District of Columbia incorporate chronic absenteeism data into the formula they use to determine which schools need additional support.

While states and districts use different definitions of chronic absenteeism, it is generally defined as the number of students who miss 10% or more of school days, even for excused absences related to issues such as illness or bereavement.

The most recent federal data shows at least 10.1 million students were chronically absent in the 2020-21 school year, up from about 8 million in the years before the health crisis. Attendance Works, which suspects absences have been underestimated during remote learning, analyzed data from states and parental surveys in conclusion, national rates of chronic absenteeism may have doubled over the past three years.

Chang said schools must maintain links with students when they are away for personal illness or when schools close to avoid an outbreak. This may mean continuing remote learning, providing home learning materials, or a phone call from a teacher or counselor.

Administrators should provide families with information about illnesses like RSV to help them distinguish between symptoms that warrant absence and signs of more minor illnesses, like a headache, that should not cause a student to stay home. , Chang said.

And, as schools recover from outbreaks, they should make efforts to re-engage affected students so they can continue to build a habit of attendance, she said. This can mean helping students deal with anxiety and academic needs that make school intimidating or unwelcoming, and it can mean status checks with teachers when students return from a series of sick days. , Chang said.

“Just because we know why they missed school doesn’t mean they don’t need help getting back,” she said. “We’re going to have to invest in the kids over time to make sure they can fully recover.”

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