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Flu season ravaging nation, depleting student attendance
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Ashlen Howard, a kindergartner at Tadmore Elementary School, talks with Dawn Davis, the school nurse. Tadmore has seen an increase in students out sick due to the flu and other illnesses. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Hundreds of students missed school in December because of the flu, and the illness’ season isn’t over yet.

As of Wednesday, approximately seven pediatric deaths due to the flu were reported in the Southeast, and 13 total deaths were reported in Georgia alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

In Hall County, attendance dropped below 90 percent at some schools in December, according to Health Services Coordinator Mamie Coker.

“When that happens, we start looking at any trends and exactly what’s going on,” Coker said. “... We expect to see absentee rates drop at feeder schools, or families that have brothers and sisters attending elementary, middle and high school. But we really didn’t see that particular trend.”

Coker said, as far as county schools could determine, more children at the elementary level were experiencing symptoms of the flu than at older levels, but geographically it seemed to be widespread.

According to the CDC, the flu season is far from over. Currently, 43 states are experiencing high or widespread flu diagnoses, and Georgia is among them.

Paula Sawyer, Gainesville High School nurse, said Gainesville City Schools also saw a large number of students experiencing symptoms before school ended for the holidays.

“The second and third weeks of December were when our clinics and school nurses were seeing more staff and students than usual with flu-like symptoms,” Sawyer said.

Gainesville City Schools sent a phone message to parents the week before Christmas, asking them to keep children home from school if they were vomiting or running a fever.

“Our superintendent has been keeping a close eye on attendance records, and fortunately we have not had to close down or go in that direction,” Sawyer said. “I think we were fortunate that our winter break came when it did.”

Polk County Schools in Northwest Georgia did close early for the Christmas break, because school attendance had been so affected.

Robin Gower, principal at Tadmore Elementary School, said she expects some children to miss school just before Christmas because their family is leaving early for the holidays, and because coursework at the elementary school is less strenuous that week.

“However, we did have a lot of students go home from school with symptoms of the flu,” Gower said. “We do know of course some of that is from being out in the cold; that doesn’t help. But we had more than 10 percent out that week.”

The outbreak this year could be due in part to this year’s ineffective vaccination. However, the CDC continues to encourage influenza vaccination and prompt treatment, as it can decrease the length and severity of the flu symptoms.

“The sad part is we strongly encouraged all of our teachers to get the flu shot, and it’s not doing them a bit of good,” Gower said.

Sawyer said she encourages not only students, but staff as well, to stay at home when they are sick. She said teachers especially feel obliged to come to school, but it can often do more harm than good.

Gower said schools are encouraging students and families to take extra measures to prevent spreading the flu.

“We’ve already started talking to our kids about what the cold weather is doing this week,” she said. “We’re reminding them to wear layers to school, keep your head and face warm. I’m telling the teachers too, please take vitamins and do what you need to do to stay well.”

Sawyer said she was concerned schools would be “hit hard again” when students came back to classes this week. So far, attendance is OK, but officials are waiting to see how the illness might spread now that children are together at school again.

“I think it was good that we did have the break and we had that separation of students,” Sawyer said. “I think it’s a little early to tell yet since we just came back into school this week, but I am hoping we are not going to see an influx again.”

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