When Does The Flu Close School?

Recent news coverage has focused on the outbreak of the Coronavirus, and because of that coverage, the flu has been overshadowed. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that the flu is “Widespread” in 48 of 50 states. In NC, the flu is responsible for 54 deaths. Flu season is expected to run through March. 

Recently schools have been shut down in different places due to illness. In recent weeks, two schools in central NC closed because of illness. In the past two days, several schools throughout Kentucky and Ohio closed because of flu outbreaks. A Colorado school district shut down 46 of its schools due to a virus around November twenty-first. The story is common.

The question is: how many people have to be out sick for a school to get shut down? 

There is no definite answer. In Johnston County, Policy Code 2100: Emergency Closing of Schools reads, “The superintendent is authorized to close schools, to delay the opening, or to dismiss schools early in the event of hazardous weather, national disaster or other emergencies that threaten the health or safety of students and personnel. To the extent possible, the administration shall see that the administrative, supervisory, and operations activities of the schools continue.” The policy offers no number of student or staff absences that will trigger the closing of a school. 

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has some process for closing schools in health-related emergencies. They say in case of dismissal, schools should notify public health and education agencies, and “students should be dismissed for 5 to 7 days, and near the end of this period communities should reassess to determine if students can return to school.” 

The CDC recommends that a school dismissal decision is made at the community level and should consider the number & severity of cases in an outbreak, the problems that school dismissal can cause for families and communities, and different types of dismissal.

A report in Science Daily reviewed a study conducted by Dr. John Brownstein, Dr. Anne Gatewood Hoen, and Dr. Asami Sasaki came up with the following guidelines for school closure in response to a flu outbreak: “A school outbreak was defined as a daily flu absentee rate of more than 10 percent of students. After comparing more than two dozen possible scenarios for closing a school, the analysis suggested three optimal scenarios:

A single-day influenza-related absentee rate of 5 percent.

Absenteeism of 4 percent or more on two consecutive days.

Absenteeism of 3 percent or more on three consecutive days.”

While studies and the CDC suggest specific requirements for school dismissals in case of the flu, NC public schools largely leave that decision up to local school boards and officials. 

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