Student absences expected to spread across district

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By Carol A. Clark

Student absences at Los Alamos Middle School have multiplied daily since Wednesday and the trend is expected to spread throughout the district.

“We had just a handful of kids with flu symptoms Wednesday, double Thursday, triple on Friday and today just over 100 kids are out sick from what we know so far,” said Dr. Shelley Schoonover of the Los Alamos Children’s Clinic during an interview Monday evening. “It’s been primarily from the middle school and if it’s influenza then it’s just a matter of days when siblings will begin showing up with it.”

The Children’s Clinic has been conducting what she calls a quick test to characterize influenza A, she said, adding that it’s only 50 percent accurate at best. On Friday the clinic sent in confirming samples to the state testing laboratory on three LAMS students to determine what type of flu they have contracted, she said.

Communications Director Deborah Busemeyer from the New Mexico Epidemiology Office said Monday morning her office is conducting H1N1 testing to determine if the virus is at the middle school. Busemeyer expects results to be available by the end of this week.

Los Alamos Public School Business Manager John Wolfe described the situation during an interview this morning. 

“It looks like approximately 29 additional students are out sick today bringing the total to about 129,” Wolfe said.

 The following is a statement issued Monday from Los Alamos Public Schools regarding the flu situation at Los Alamos Middle School: 

The number of students at the middle school, exhibiting flu like symptoms, increased from three last Wednesday to 99 at the start of Monday’s school day.

Los Alamos school administrators and nurses are closely monitoring this trend.

District officials have communicated the  absence trend to the Public Education Department in Santa Fe and the New Mexico Center for Infectious Disease Control, both of whom are now also monitoring trend in the district. 

The district has begun tracking attendance patterns in the elementary and high school as well.

Thus far, the numbers of reported flu-like symptoms has been small.

However, local doctors believe it is just a matter of time before siblings of middle school students report similar illnesses.

As the number of student absences grows, the district has implemented a temporary policy change for the verification of student illnesses. Current Board Policy 5110R requires a parent to provide a doctor’s note or verification from the school nurse for the student’s absence to be excused.

During this period of high absenteeism, school attendance officers will accept a parent call or note instead of a medical doctor’s note to excuse a student for the flu. This adjustment in the attendance verification policy will extend through this period of high numbers of influenza in Los Alamos and the surrounding areas.

This decision is necessary because local doctors are handling an unusually high number of flu-like symptoms.

Superintendent Gene Schmidt asks that parents and guardians contact their child’s school to report student absences. “In order to insure that the school accounts for all students in our care during the school day, we need to hear from you,” he said. “When calling to report a student absence, please share the following."

    • Student name

    • Grade

    • Symptoms

    •  Date of reported absence.”

Students are expected to make up work missed from class.

Students will be allowed an equal number of school days to make up work of his/her excused absence.

For those students who wish to stay current while at home, parents can request their student’s homework beginning on the third day of excused absence.

The Center for Disease Control suggests these simple guidelines:

* Those with flu-like symptoms should stay home for at least 24 hours after they no longer have a fever, or signs of a fever, without the use of fever-reducing medicines.

 * The new recommendations emphasize the importance of the basic foundations of influenza prevention, including frequently washing hands, and covering noses and mouths with a tissue when coughing or sneezing (or a shirt sleeve or elbow if no tissue is available).

* Clean areas that students touch often with typically used cleaners.

For information, access the LAPS Web site at www.laschools.net.

New Mexico is seeing clusters of influenza-like illness in two schools including Los Alamos Middle School, which was expected with the start of school and is likely due to the continued spread of H1N1 influenza, said Health Secretary Alfredo Vigil, MD, in a news release Monday.

The Department of Health works with the Public Education Department to make sure schools are doing what they can to reduce the spread of disease.

“We anticipated seeing clusters of flu illness when school began because H1N1 influenza activity has continued throughout the summer,” Vigil said.

“We are making sure schools are prepared to respond appropriately to ill students and staff, and we encourage parents to keep their children at home if they are sick with a fever, cough and or a sore throat.”

The Department of Health is investigating clusters of influenza-like illness in students from Los Alamos Middle School and the Kirtland Early Childhood Center’s kindergarten classes near Farmington.

The investigation is at the beginning stages and the department has not yet confirmed whether the illness is H1N1.

LAMS school nurse reported about an 18 percent absentee rate among the 600 children who attend the school.

“Superintendents and school principals have been receiving the latest information on H1N1 virus and prevention strategies,” said Education Secretary Veronica Garcia in the release.

“School closures will be based on a collaborative decision made by me, Secretary Vigil and the superintendent of the school district. I encourage all educators to follow prevention steps outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Department of Health," Garcia said. "CDC guidelines for school closures have changed since last spring, and the federal agency has determined school closures are not the best option in most cases. National and local recommendations could change based on any changes in disease severity.”

Contact Carol A. Clark at lanews@lamonitor.com or 505-662-4185 ext. 25. Read her newsblog at www.newsextras.wordpress.com.