District officials confirm flu as part of reason for cancelation
In 2010, the state Department of Public Instruction tasked schools with creating action plans in case of a communicable disease outbreak in response to the H1N1 scare going on at the time.
Last week, the School District of Rhinelander had to put that plan in place in response to an outbreak of the very same illness in two of its buildings.
“We do know that at least some of the students had influenza A, which is H1N1, a seasonal flu,” District Nurse Kerri Schmidt said. Schmidt added tests are still being done to see if a second illness, possibly a norovirus was also present in the schools.
The outbreak prompted the closing of Pelican School Friday and had the district issue a voluntary pick up notice for students at Crescent School also on Friday as more children showed symptoms.
But the district’s response to the outbreak was not just done on a whim but was part of careful plan Schmidt, the Oneida County Health Department and the district administration put in place, following that 2010 mandate from the DPI.
The district, which monitors not only absences but symptoms when children are called in sick, began seeing an uptick in illnesses as early as two weeks ago.
“We began seeing a slight rise the last couple of weeks to about five percent,” Schmidt said.
The district shares absence and symptoms reports with Health Department every Tuesday.
“The Health Department graphs everything for us and they found the numbers were increasing,” Schmidt said.
At Pelican School, staff saw an increase of headaches, pale students, nausea, fevers over 100, vomiting and sore throat and cough in children and an increase in children calling in sick or leaving school early.
Then Wednesday and Thursday, absences reached the 20 percent threshold the district set as a bench mark for when to close down a building.
“It is never the goal to shut down a school,” Schmidt said. “But when you have staff out sick, students out sick, you have to break the cycle. We made the decision to close the school down and get everything cleaned and disinfected.”
The district made the decision to close Pelican School for Friday on Thursday but even as that decision was being made, another elementary school was reporting troubling numbers.
“Late Thursday, Crescent School reported a jump in students absent or leaving school,” Schmidt said. “They went from normal levels to 10 percent.”
With those numbers being reported, Schmidt said she knew Crescent could be on the edge of the same issue as Pelican.
“Friday morning I went right to Crescent School,” she said.
As the calls came in to report student absences and students started coming to the office to report not feeling well, the decision was made to send out a message to parents of a voluntary pick up day.
“We did not want to close the school down because we know that parents work, you can’t always have your phone with you during the day,” Schmidt said. “But we wanted to give parents the option to come and get their children even if they weren’t sick to come get their child and take them home. Get them out of the school.”
Over the weekend, maintance staff disinfected both buildings. Classes have resumed at both schools.
Other schools in the district were not affected for the most part.
“Central had a slight surge,” Schmidt said. “But the high school and the middle school were seeing normal numbers. We have kids out sick but not the spike like we saw at the other schools.”
That trend of the younger elementary school kids being most affected by the outbreak is consistent with H1N1 Schmidt said.
“H1N1 does affect younger children more,” Schmidt said. “That is why we saw the pre-K to third grade schools heavily affected and at the fourth and fifth grade schools we didn’t get to 20 percent.”
The closing of Pelican School was the first time in 11 years the district has had to cancel classes due to an illness outbreak. In 2002, a norovirus outbreak forced the closing of a building.
Schmidt said she believes the weather may have played a role in this year’s outbreak.
“With the cold weather we have had, the kids have been couped up inside,” she said. “The flu is highly communicable and when children are spending so much time in one area it can spread.”
Schmidt said teachers in the district do a good job of getting students to wash their hands but there is only so much that can be done if a highly contagious disease like the flu, which can be spread through the air, is present.
In order to combat that type of transmission, Schmidt said the district has guidelines for parents if their child does come down with the illness.
“We remind people to keep children at home if they have any of the symptoms of the flu or any other illness,” she said. “And then we ask them not to send their child back to school 48 hours after symptoms subside. It used to be 24 hours after a fever or vomiting but now it is recommended to wait 48 hours after symptoms.