Serious outbreaks of the H1N1 flu are being reported at scattered Twin Cities schools, forcing a few to close and some to alter their instruction to account for all the absent kids.
Statewide, the number of schools with outbreaks has continued to climb since September, reaching 288 last week, according to the state Department of Health. The list includes public and private schools in Minneapolis, White Bear Lake, Richfield, Burnsville, Maplewood, Edina, Apple Valley, Anoka and St. Paul.
Still, despite higher absentee rates, the number of schools walloped hard enough to force closures or significantly disrupt operations appears to have remained small in the metro area.
"We've had some kids out and have had to report it to the Department of Health a couple of times," said Kari Page, principal of Wilshire Park Elementary in St. Anthony. "Overall, though, we feel we're doing OK here."
Page said that in the past eight days, about 40 students out of 694 have been absent, many of them reporting flu-like symptoms. Normally, she said, 20 to 25 students might be out at this time of year.
Nationwide, 600 flu-stricken schools have shut down temporarily this year, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In the Twin Cities this week, at least two schools were among those ranks: St. Paul Academy and Summit School in St. Paul, which shut down its upper grades after classes Wednesday, and Salem Lutheran School in Stillwater. Earlier this month, the Crookston school district shut down for a day when 15 percent of its students were out.
The state Health Department defines a school outbreak as at least 5 percent of the student body or three children in an elementary classroom being out with flu-like illness.
On the front lines
Northport Elementary in Brooklyn Center, a K-5 school with 577 students, is on the front lines of the flu battle.
On Wednesday, 50 kids were absent, most because of illnesses, said Principal Patrick Smith.
Illness at the school has become pervasive enough that dealing with it has become part of the lesson plan. Just after the kindergartners in Cynthia Haugberg's class worked with paints, crayons and glue Thursday, school nurse Jane Flower gave them a lesson in hand-washing. It included a song to help them remember the five steps and magnified pictures of germs to help convince them it's worth doing.
"Our numbers [of students with flu] seemed to really go up this week," said Flower, who gave hand-washing lessons to all four sections of kindergartners.
Northport also has been trying to send kids home as soon as it's clear they're sick, rather than let them stay in the tiny nurse's office, which has room for only two cots.
So far, though, it appears that disruptions at most schools have been minimal. David Stead, executive director of the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL), said that this week's state soccer and girls' tennis tournaments were proceeding as usual.
In northwestern Minnesota, however, Bagley High School recently had to forfeit a class AA football playoff game against Hawley, in part because the squad had been ravaged by the flu, said MSHSL spokesman Howard Voigt.
"That's the only one that we've heard of that impacted competition," Voigt said.
Interviews with school officials indicate that, in many cases, the flu is circling through schools at various times, boosting absentee rates, before receding after about a week.
"There's little peaks and valleys," said Cindy Hiltz, health service coordinator for Anoka-Hennepin schools, the state's largest district. "It seems to stick right around 5 percent [flu absentee rate], then last about three to five days, then things seem to get better the next week. I have a feeling the whole season is going to be like this."
SPA and Salem Lutheran
At St. Paul Academy and Summit School and Salem Lutheran, the peaks hit hard. Absences at St. Paul Academy and Summit School's Upper School jumped to 30 percent by Wednesday, leading to the closure.
"It wasn't just the statistics, it was looking at [the students], talking to them, watching them," said Bryn Roberts, head of school. "We know these kids. We see them every day. They needed some time to recuperate."
The Upper School closing was technically just for a day, Thursday, because today is a parent/teacher conference day.
In Stillwater, Salem Lutheran School struggled with high absence rates for three weeks before deciding to close for the week after Tuesday, said Principal Terry Graf.
The school barely completed state-required testing of its students in late September because of absences, Graf said.
Leaders have organized a thorough cleaning of the school, which has an enrollment of 144 in kindergarten through eighth grade. Parents and staff have volunteered to clean all the common areas and classrooms.
When students return, they will not be allowed to use drinking fountains, but will have to drink bottled water to reduce the likelihood of spreading germs.
At Bloomington's Westwood Elementary School, more than one in five students have been out with flu-like symptoms this week, Principal Carolyn Hartwigsen said Thursday. Of the school's 400 students, about 85 have been absent the past few days, but the school hasn't considered closing.
"We still have 80 percent of our students who are here," she said. "It would take longer than a few days for everybody to get better, and then it's still being spread in the community, so it could still come back in."
At the 3,300-student Wayzata High School, somewhere between 150 and 200 students called in sick with flu-like symptoms last week, said Principal Mike Trewick. But the biggest concern, he said, was that it was hitting adults more than kids.
"We had anywhere from 15 to 30 teachers out of the building," said Trewick. The school was able to get the substitute teachers necessary to cover the absences, he said.
Staff writers Emily Johns and Sarah Lemagie contributed to this report.
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