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H1N1 and Schools: Steady as She Goes

October 30, 2009 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

There is no doubt that this flu season has hit schools harder than any in recent memory. Minnesota teachers say it's difficult to remember a time when so many students have been out of school at one time.

"I've been teaching 24 years and I don't ever recall a time when 30 percent of students were out of school," said Neil Wittiko, a German and English teacher at Hermantown High. "Unless it was for the state hockey tournament."

The image of Minnesota teachers and administrators as uncaring bureaucrats - a favored impression over the last 20 years - is taking a blow in these unusual times. With student absenteeism zooming upward last week, they have struggled to keep student health needs balanced with educational goals. Their first concern is keeping children safe from harm. Their second is to keep them up to date on their education.

"We had 30 percent of our students out one day last week," Wittiko said. That day was preceded and followed by days of 20 percent absenteeism. This obviously puts a strain on teachers like Wittiko who have to find a way to keep students from falling behind.

"When a student calls in sick, we usually take assignments to the counselor's office and they pick them up there," he said. "But with so many absent, our principal asked us to hold off on assignments. It's just tough to navigate with so many students gone."

The key to keeping students current with their studies is to work with families to make sure missing work gets done Wittiko said.

That's a sentiment echoed by New London-Spicer school district superintendent Paul Carlson. Just before the fall five-day break, New London-Spicer Middle School saw an absentee rate of 11 percent.

"We made some adjustments," Carlson said. "Teachers sent the homework home to families to make up. The students miss out on the presentation, of course, but we try to make sure the students find a way to catch up."

Facing a 15 percent absentee rate, the Crookston school district closed its doors the Wednesday before the long weekend hoping the break would give the flu virus a chance to subside. Superintendent Wayne Gilman said the move paid off with only 9 percent absent the next Monday.

He too said the key to maintaining educational rigor was encouraging a partnership between parents and teachers.

"It's all about parent partnership and teacher flexibility," Gilman said, adding that each student's needs are different. "It's not about seat time, it's about individual learning," he said.

School teachers and administrators have come under fire from those who doubt the competency of a public school education.  In times like these, the true character of educators becomes clear. Even in these unusual times, they handle themselves the way they always do:

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