Some of the state’s school districts hard-hit by illness have been forced to shut down recently, and the Centers for Disease Control is reporting widespread flu in at least 37 states, including Georgia.
The Coweta County School System is monitoring an increase in flu-like illnesses among its students and a few schools reached as much as a 10 percent absenteeism rate last week, requiring the Georgia Department of Public Health to be notified.
“I’ve been in contact with them several times this week,” said Sally Millians, the school system’s head nurse.
Coweta schools reported a higher than normal absentee rate across the county and specific spikes at three elementary schools. On Monday, the county-wide absentee rate was 7.9 percent with Welch Elementary at more than 12 percent, Brooks and Atkinson elementaries at nearly 11 percent.
On Tuesday, the county-wide rate was 5.6 percent with Welch at more than 11 percent, Brooks at more than 10 percent and Atkinson at 7.7 percent. By Wednesday, according to school system spokesman Dean Jackson, no schools were higher than 10 percent and the county-wide absenteeism rate had dropped to normal levels.
“These numbers can ebb and flow, certainly,” Jackson said.
Inclement weather that forced students to stay indoors and in close contact with each other may be partly to blame for the spike in illness-related absenteeism, Millians said.
“We really started seeing a rise at the end of January,” she said. “It’s earlier than we’ve seen it traditionally. We’ve had to keep the children inside so much from the rain, and keeping them in small, confined spaces increases transference.”
School officials and nurses rarely hear back from doctors or parents about which students actually are diagnosed with flu, Millians said, and both stomach-related illness and strep throat are commonly reported as well.
“We’ve been hit significantly with strep this year,” Millians said. “Some of our children have had dual illnesses, either flu with a secondary complication of strep or strep with the flu.”
Millians said she looks at attendance and absenteeism rates on a daily basis, and school nurses throughout the system stay in contact with her about reported illnesses clustered at schools or in classrooms. It’s a lot of work for school nurses who are dealing with an uptick in the number of sick students, she said.
“Our nurses have so many hats to wear,” Millians said. “We have to add trying to educate students and parents and staff about illnesses and doing more assessments of sick children, and then there’s the surveillance and data reporting to do.”
Schools are implementing communicable illness prevention strategies, following school cleaning and disinfection procedures recommended by the CDC and public health. School administrators are helping reinforce good hygiene with students and sending home information to help parents recognize flu-like symptoms.
Millians said parents can do a lot to help prevent illness from spreading among students.
“The main thing I’d love to get across to parents is if their kids are sick – if they have the first indication of that – to keep them home,” she said. “And if you have a child who’s sick at school, pick them up as quickly as possible to lessen transference.”
Parents should be sure school staff members have their correct contact information as well.
“(Flu season) may be a really good time for parents to update their contacts for the school,”
School officials say they expect the upcoming winter break to help slow the spread of sickness among Coweta students.
TIPS FOR FLU SEASON
What to do if you’re well:
Stay away from sick people
Clean and disinfect surfaces that are touched often
Wash your hands frequently with soap and water (or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer)
Get a flu shot
What to do if you’re sick:
Limit contact with others
Stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone
Cough or sneeze into tissues