In a gut punch to school districts that have dedicated the year to maximizing classroom time after more than two years of disruption caused by the pandemic, other respiratory illnesses have converged, forcing more students to stay home.
Schools have always been tested by the winter cold and flu season. But this year, the traditional illnesses have intersected with surging cases of RSV, a respiratory virus that can be serious for young children, and continued COVID-19 infections—challenging even the most steadfast efforts to keep kids in the classroom.
Though uncommon, some schools in recent weeks have closed or temporarily shifted to remote learning to slow the spread of illness in their buildings, including in Tennessee, Alabama, Ohio, Virginia, and more than three dozen in Kentucky, according to Burbio, a company tracking health-related school closures throughout the country.
Still, any additional time out of the classroom can be consequential.
District leaders have said the closures and students’ illnesses can complicate efforts to regain academic ground after prolonged virtual classes in 2020 and 2021, and to get more students reengaged with their learning.
“To the degree possible, practical, and available we want to keep students and staff in school every day,” said Michael Lubelfeld, the superintendent of schools in Highland Park, Ill. “We do not want to return to scaled remote learning and we do not want to have absences impact already-interrupted learning. That’s a major concern.”
Lessons new and old, from HVAC upgrades to hand-washing
Lubelfeld’s district is building on lessons learned during the pandemic by continuing to invest in air ventilation and filtration systems that have become a cornerstone in districts’ fights against COVID-19.
Like COVID, RSV spreads through droplets that come from coughing and sneezing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Air filtration and ventilation systems that can remove such pollutants are a key investment, Lubelfeld said. His district has invested more than $1 million across 10 campuses to upgrade its systems and will make those efforts part of schools’ routine maintenance.
“If there’s any kind of positive lesson we have learned from the pandemic, it was understanding just how much indoor air quality affects students’ health,” Lubelfeld said. “It’s become a public health priority, even when there isn’t a public health crisis.”
More immediate and traditional measures, endorsed by the CDC in its guidance for schools, include:
- encouraging frequent hand-washing;
- advising students and staff to cover their mouths when they are cough;
- regularly disinfecting surfaces;
- keeping students and teachers home when they’re sick.
The CDC also encourages people who are eligible to receive the COVID-19 and flu vaccines.
Some parents have ‘messaging fatigue’ about health
Keeping schools open is a community effort.
Lubelfeld said it’s important, especially headed into the winter break this month, that districts continue to send frequent messages to the community underscoring how to stay healthy, and the importance of being healthy and in school.
Keeping those messages fresh and relevant is important, Mike Laub, superintendent in North Royalton, Ohio, added. After years of health and wellness-heavy communications from schools, some parents are experiencing messaging fatigue, he said.
“It got to a point where parents would see an email from the school and just delete it. And I get it, I was a parent during that time as well,” Laub said. “Intentionality is important.”
Laub’s district has refreshed its messages, creating a new, eye-catching design. It sends occasional health messages as necessary, but tries not to “over deliver.”
And the district’s efforts to keep students healthy has become integrated into the school day. Beginning this year, high school students can take a “speed, strength, and wellness” course that teaches students the basics of eating healthfully, exercising, and caring for their physical health.
Those foundational skills—like how to create a balanced diet or correctly lift weights—are the foundation to building a stronger immune system. For student-athletes, building their weight training into the school day, rather than having to find time before or after, saves time that can now spend resting, Laub said.
“All of these are lifelong skills that have a lot of benefits, like being healthier overall,” Laub said. “It can help boost immunity and, ultimately, keep kids in school.”