Student Well-Being

Respiratory Illnesses Force Schools to Close, Hurting Attendance Efforts

By Evie Blad — November 09, 2022 6 min read
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Schools in several states have closed temporarily as quickly spreading respiratory illness drive up student absences. But this time, COVID-19 isn’t to blame.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that the country is experiencing a surge of two seasonal illnesses—influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV—that is much earlier and more intense than ina typical year.

And that’s keeping affected kids out of the classroom at a crucial time, when educators are going to great lengths to restore school attendance habits that cratered during the pandemic. Student absences are a concern for school leaders, even if they are considered excused, said Hedy Chang, the executive director of Attendance Works, an organization that promotes ways to measure and address chronic absenteeism.

“Even if we know a kid is missing school for health reasons, we still have to worry about them … especially if they were already struggling [with academics or attendence] before the illness,” as many students were, she said.

RSV is a respiratory virus that typically causes mild symptoms similar to a cold. While most people recover in a week or two, RSV can be serious for young children and elderly adults, Dr. Jose Romero, the director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a recent call with reporters. While rates of RSV typically reach a seasonal peak alongside cases of the flu in the winter months, officials have tracked an unusually early spike in cases of both illnesses this year, he said.

“We suspect that many children are being exposed to some respiratory viruses now for the first time, having avoided these viruses during the height of the pandemic,” Romero said.

Hospitals reaching capacity

The surge in respiratory illness has caused children’s hospitals around the country to warn that they have reached capacity. In Pittsburgh, the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center Children’s Hospital set up a tent outside its emergency room last week to treat an influx of children reporting major respiratory symptoms, like trouble breathing and severe cough.

Schools are also feeling the effects, some shifting to remote learning or closing for several days to slow the spread within their buildings.

In Ohio, the Lynchburg-Clay Local School District cancelled elementary school and sent middle and high school students home for remote learning Nov. 3 and Nov. 4 after several days where about 20 percent of students—and many staff members—were absent with the flu, Superintendent Jack Fisher told Education Week.

“Given the circumstances of the last two years and the staffing levels, we are a little quicker to make immediate course corrections, such as shutting down for a brief time, instead of plowing through as we used to do,” he said.

Like many school systems, the district was already operating on very tight margins before the flu outbreak, Fisher said. The district has struggled to hire adequate classified staff, and the substitute pool for positions like bus drivers and aides is “razor thin,” he said. So when key student support employees grew ill, it became difficult to operate in-person.

After Williamstown, Ky., schools faced a similar staffing dilemma and climbing rates of student absences, district leaders cancelled classes for the first week of November.

We suspect that many children are being exposed to some respiratory viruses now for the first time, having avoided these viruses during the height of the pandemic.

“Our student attendance was down, and then we started having staff drop off, and we were starting to have trouble covering classrooms with the substitute shortage,” Todd Dupin, director of pupil personnel and operations, told local news station Fox 19.

At least 26 of Kentucky’s 171 school systems have closed or gone remote because of widespread illness so far in November, the Kentucky School Boards Association said.

Schools and districts in states including Alabama, Louisiana, Michigan, Virginia, and Wisconsin have had similar closures in recent weeks. Some districts that were closed for Election Day opted to take the Monday before off as well to give custodial staff time to deep clean and students time to heal.

Influenza, RSV, and other common seasonal illnesses spread through inhalation of droplets that are projected into the air when infected people cough or sneeze. They can also live on surfaces like desks and toys, spreading through touch.

In its guidance for schools on influenza, the CDC recommends many strategies that also reduce the risk of transmitting RSV: regular handwashing, advising students to cover their mouths when they cough, advising families to keep children home until they are fever-free for at least 24 hours, regular disinfecting of surfaces, and communication with local health officials to monitor possible outbreaks.

In a press briefing last week, CDC officials also emphasized that COVID-19 variants continue to spread, stressing the importance of vaccinations to prevent severe illness. That warning came after most schools have lifted the most intense pandemic precautions, like universal masking requirements.

Tackling chronic absenteeism

The combination of illnesses has created a fresh challenge for school systems that were already concerned about chronic absenteeism, long before two years of pandemic-related disruptions threw their student engagement efforts into disarray.

Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, 36 states and the District of Columbia incorporate data on chronic absenteeism in the formula they use to determine which schools need additional support.

While states and districts use varying definitions of chronic absenteeism, it is commonly defined as the number of students who miss 10 percent or more of school days, even for excused absences related to issues like sickness or bereavement.

The most recent federal data show at least 10.1 million students were chronically absent during the 2020-21 school year, up from about 8 million in years prior to the health crisis. Attendance Works, which suspects absences were undercounted during remote learning, analyzed data from states and parental surveys to conclude nationwide rates of chronic absenteeism may have doubled over the last three years.

Chang said schools need to maintain connections to students when they are out for personal illness or when schools close to prevent an outbreak. That might mean the continuation of remote learning, providing at-home learning materials, or a check-in phone call from a teacher or counselor.

Administrators should provide families with information about illnesses like RSV to help them separate out what symptoms justify an absence and what signs of more minor illnesses, like a headache, shouldn’t cause a student to stay home, Chang said.

And, as schools recover from outbreaks, they should make efforts to re-engage affected students so they can keep building a habit of attendance, she said. That may mean helping students tackle anxiety and academic needs that make school feel intimidating or unwelcoming, and it may mean status checks with teachers when students return from a string of sick days, Chang said.

“Just because we know why they missed school doesn’t mean they don’t need support in helping to come back,” she said. “We are going to need to invest in kids over time to make sure they can fully recover.”

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