The flu has taken eastern Idaho’s schools by storm.
Eastern Idaho school districts — Blackfoot, Firth, Shelley, Fremont, Ririe, Snake River, Teton and West Jefferson — have taken the rare step of closing their schools this week because of the high number of students absent due to flu-like illnesses. Jefferson School District 251 closed Tuesday and Wednesday before opening Thursday.
Teton School District closed Wednesday and will remain closed through Friday with 20 percent of its students absent due to illness, the Teton Valley News reported. The district estimated that between students and teachers, around 378 to 425 are out sick.
American Heritage Charter School was closed last week due to illness. Taylor’s Crossing Public Charter School was closed Monday and Tuesday and Hope Lutheran School in Idaho Falls canceled all classes this week.
Idaho Falls School District 91 and Bonneville Joint School District 93 also have received pressure to close schools as of Tuesday evening.
District 93 released a statement on its Twitter and Facebook page Tuesday evening saying it recognizes the recent influx of flu-like cases and is cleaning its schools “at least twice a day” and upgraded its level of disinfectant to “hospital grade.”
The district included a poll on its social media posts asking patrons whether it should add additional days to the school calendar to allow schools to close for outbreaks of illness during the school year.
“Reports of school absences have been somewhat exaggerated on social media,” the D93 statement read. “Districtwide, our attendance this past week was around 90 percent. Average attendance in D93 has hovered around 94 percent during the current school year. There have been some classrooms that have been impacted harder than others and we are taking extra precautions to disinfect those classes and keep students and faculty safe.”
Eastern Idaho Public Health is seeing a normal amount of influenza cases this year, according to data from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
U.S. Outpatient ILI (influenza-like illness) Surveillance Network data shows 2.43 percent of patients reported by the network had confirmed cases of influenza as of two weeks ago — about average when compared to other years. The 2014-15 influenza season had a 5.78 outpatient percent during the same time of year.
“In terms of influenza-like illness, we’re par for the course,” Eastern Idaho Public Health Surveillance Epidemiologist Mike Taylor told the Post Register.
For the week ending Jan. 26, the most recent available, the CDC reported Idaho was among 13 states experiencing low ILI activity.
This year’s flu vaccine seemed well targeted toward the current strains. Taylor said this year’s vaccine is a “50 to 60 percent” match for the strain the CDC projected.
Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center said it recently has seen an increase of influenza cases, however.
Hospital spokeswoman Coleen Niemann said sometimes people who have flu-like symptoms aren’t always fully tested, potentially affecting the official reports.
“EIRMC ER is seeing more people suffering more from flu-like symptoms than last year,” Niemann said in a statement. “These symptoms have hit later than a traditional flu season and have hit our community harder and faster than typical.”
The process of canceling school can be lengthy and a lose-lose situation for school administrators.
Bonneville Joint School District 93 assistant superintendent Scott Woolstenhulme said canceling school for three to four days due to the flu and sick students would push the school calendar to June.
He added that part of the problem with canceling classes for a week stems from guidelines set by the Idaho Department of Education.
Idaho state law describes an “emergency closure” as weather conditions and/or building failures (heat, electricity, etc.).
“The state doesn’t let us count (sickness) as an emergency problem,” Woolstenhulme said.
Idaho Falls School District 91 spokeswoman Margaret Wimborne said District 91 has had about 12 percent of its students absent in recent days.
Wimborne said closing the school district would cause logistical problems for parents and families, as area businesses and Idaho National Laboratory have not closed this winter.
“Parents have the option to opt their student out if they don’t feel like their child is safe,” Wimborne said. “The cold and flu are definitely in our community. Talking to eastern Idaho public officials in the area, like every year, there is lots of cold and flu going around.”
Officials from both school districts said their schools will remain open.
Firth Superintendent Sid Tubbs said closing the district — which has about 800 students across three schools — comes down to bus transportation and family logistics, too.
“We know plenty of people where mom and dad work during the day and we considered that,” Tubbs said. “On the other hand, we can’t have kids sick like this.”
Tubbs said district attendance was 88 percent last Thursday. The school district is now at 86 percent and has “continued to drop” since school came back into session Tuesday. If Firth’s school system, which goes Monday through Thursday, loses two or more days due to sickness, the make-up days will take place on Fridays, Tubbs said.
“This is the hardest I’ve seen the flu hit our schools since I’ve been here,” said Madison School District 321 superintendent Geoffrey Thomas, who has been in the district for 18 years.
Adams Elementary School, Burton Elementary School, Central High School and Hibbard Elementary have all closed schools due to 20 percent absence rates, though Thomas said the overall district’s enrollment is “improving.”
“We’re starting to climbing over the hump and seeing a more normal attendance pattern,” Thomas added. “I think we’re on the back end of it.”
Health officials are encouraging eastern Idaho parents to keep their children home from school if they’re sick to stop the flu’s spread in the region. Health officials are also urging everyone to wash their hands as much as possible because that easy step could keep you from catching the flu.
The Shelley School District, which canceled classes Monday and Tuesday, advised its sick students via Facebook to “stay home and get well.”
The Fremont School District closed all of its schools Friday after nearly a third of the district’s students were absent Thursday with flu-like illnesses.
With a large percentage of its students fighting the flu at home, the Fremont School District’s teachers went to work Friday, but instead of teaching, they worked to clean and sanitize their classrooms.
Health officials don’t keep track of the exact number of flu cases in eastern Idaho but it’s clear by the unusually large number of school closures that the illness is taking a significant toll.
“Talking to clinicians, yes, there’s lots of flu going around (in eastern Idaho). Lots of sick kids,” Taylor said.
The Teton Valley News, Idaho State Journal and Rexburg Standard Journal contributed to this article.