After student attendance dropped by 20 percent or more in some areas due to the flu, several schools nationwide closed their doors to prevent the illness from spreading. The closures also gave school employees extra time to disinfect the classrooms and school buses where children are often in close contact.
According to the CDC's FluView report, influenza activity remains high and widespread across the nation, particularly in Region 5, which includes Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.
Though vaccine supplies are limited in some areas, the CDC said it is not too late to be vaccinated and provides a flu vaccine locator on its website. The agency warns that children aged 5 and younger, as well as adults aged 65 years and older, are particularly at risk of suffering complications from the flu.
So what can school officials do to protect their staff members and students?
In Texas, where flu activity was designated "widespread" Jan. 23, a transportation staff member at Houston Independent School District came up with a creative way to combat the spread of germs. Mark Swackhamer, senior manager of fleet operations, told School Transportation News the bus terminal secretary became concerned after reading about a school bus driver shortage in Spring Branch ISD due to a large number of drivers calling in with the flu.
"She wanted to prevent this in HISD so she attached flu-safety tips to bottles of hand sanitizer and distributed these to all 1,100 bus drivers and attendants," he said. "The response has been overwhelming from the bus drivers and attendants with many saying that they appreciate that the district cares about them."
In nearby Oklahoma, Kiefer (Okla.) Public Schools, located 30 minutes south of Tulsa, closed schools Jan. 10 and 11 because a quarter of all students were out with the flu. Officials said they used these two days to clean all of the water fountains, lockers, desks and chairs in the school district.
Schools from Illinois to Minnesota made the same call to close its doors when high percentages of students were absent because of the flu. In Illinois, Grayville CUSD #1 Superintendent Sara Emery said the district closed for three days last week, from Jan. 14 to 16, because the prior week student numbers began dropping, and parent after parent called in with reports of the flu.
"We started working with the local Department of Public Health, which we're required to do in Illinois. Their recommendation was that we would need to close for five to seven days," Emery noted.
She added that though some staff members were absent, their school bus drivers remained healthy. Grayville has two school buses and a student population of about 320. While school employees wiped down surfaces inside schools to eliminate germs, she said, transportation staff disinfected their school buses after each route.
The district used the "School Reach" system to send families updates and reminders about hand-washing, covering your mouth when coughing, keeping sick kids home and making sure they are fever-free for 24 hours without the use of ibuprofen or similar medications, Emery explained.
On Jan. 17, school staff boarded the yellow buses to take student's temperatures before they disembarked and began their school day.
"We only sent one student home that morning who had a fever," she recalled. "It took a little time, but I think the parents were really helpful and worked with us."
Cheryl Becker of St. James Lutheran School in Northrop, Minn., said officials opted to close the school from Jan. 14 to 16 after 27 percent of students are absent the previous Friday. She added that their school bus driver, Jim Smith, did not catch the flu.
Several area schools reported a high flu occurrence in students before Christmas break and then a recurrence when school resumed two weeks ago. Experts released information indicating this area of the state has been hit harder than others.
"Yes, southern Minnesota has been hit hard," Becker said. "There have been reports of the flu at Fairmont Area Schools and New Ulm, too."
Carl Allen, director of transportation for Boston Public Schools, said their school bus contractor advised bus drivers and other employees to be sure to wash their hands, cover their coughs and get vaccinated. The city has been promoting general vaccinations since November, when hospitals first became inundated with flu patients.
Judy Dupille, director of vehicle safety and compliance for the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, told STN that her school bus program manager has not heard of any school districts experiencing transportation impacts from the flu outbreak. this season there have been more than 750 confirmed flu cases in Boston as of Jan. 14 — more than 10 times the 70 cases reported this time last year.
"We haven't heard anything about it affecting the bus drivers getting the children to school," said Dupille.