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Flu Absences & School Nurse Need Increase in Greater Minnesota

October 22, 2009 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Crookston schools closed Wednesday because of increased student absences due to the flu. The district is at the crest of the wave of outstate districts facing student shortages because of the flu.

While the Crookston district was already planning a half-day Wednesday and no school Thursday and Friday for teacher workshops, school officials thought it best to call school off entirely Wednesday.

About 15 percent of the district's 1,270 students had the flu Monday. Superintendent Wayne Gilman made the decision to call off Wednesday's classes after talking with Polk County Public Health. "They thought it would be wise for the kids to stay at home," he told the Crookston Times.

The Minnesota Department of Health said 215 schools reported flu outbreaks for the week of Oct. 4-10, the most recent reporting cycle. The H1N1 strain remains the most prevalent in the state, officials said.

Once again, the folly of the state's budgeting practice is exposed. Nurses are an integral part of both the education and health systems of Minnesota's schools. It is they who make plans for dealing with pandemics. It is they who are on the front lines as children become ill in the schools and need to be isolated from their peers until they can go home. Their importance has never been more evident. Yet budget cuts have dropped the number of school nurses in Minnesota well below the national average.

Health officials say the best way to fight the flu is to cover your coughs and sneezes and for children and adults to stay home for at least one day after they recover from a fever. Minnesota 2020 has produced a video about the H1N1 flu.

Crookston is not the only school wrestling with the flu.

More than 200 schools across the state reported outbreaks of influenza -- a 72 percent increase from the previous week -- with H1N1 reported as the most common strain.

Nearly every school in the Mankato school district has been hit hard by the flu. Slightly more than 400 students missed school Monday due to flu-like symptoms.

The Elk River School District is seeing an above average number of ill students, many with influenza-like symptoms.

The Big Lake School District has seen s a continual rise in absences - from 10 percent absent due to flu on Oct. 8 to 15 percent on Oct. 13.

Nearly 20 percent of Hermantown students were out sick Monday with flu-like symptoms..

The number of incidents at Cloquet also is creeping up. The district's high school and elementary school now have 5 percent of students reporting symptoms.

The Duluth school district saw its number of absentees increase from about 365 students reporting symptoms last week to 423 this week, or about 4 percent of the entire student body. The number of schools at the 5 percent mark - the threshold for reporting to the Minnesota Department of Health - jumped from two last week to eight this week.

In St. Cloud, area schools have seen absentee rates approaching or surpassing 10 percent. Overall, the number of students sick with the flu shot up to 534. The district has more than 9,400 students.

On Wednesday, the St. Cloud school district recommended administrators and program directors cancel or postpone any event that brings a large number of people together. A dance at South Junior High and an assembly that would have brought students from the four secondary schools together already have been scrapped.

The Eden Valley-Watkins school district reported 107 students of 870 are out of school because of illness.

More than 100 of Waconia's Bayview Elementary School 600 students were absent when the flu peaked last week.  "We were open and we operated as we always did, but obviously when 10 kids are gone, you have to teach a little differently. You have to catch them up," Principal Chuck Anderson to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

After nearly half of the Warren-Alvarado-Oslo School District's high school students were home sick with the flu last week, Superintendent Bryan Thygeson told the Grand Forks Herald that things are just about back to normal.

Only seven high school students had flu-like illnesses Monday, "quite a drop from 80" reported last Tuesday, he said.

Other than the Crookston closure, only one other district has closed all of its schools. Orono closed its' schools in May for a day because of the H1N1 virus.

In April, Rocori Middle School and nearby St. Boniface elementary school were closed after someone connected to the middle school came down with a probable case of the H1N1 virus.

School nurses play a vital role in our schools and overall public health infrastructure. Over the last few years, the state's failure to invest in schools has created a staffing shortage precisely when we need more school nurses.

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