Attendance counts are back to normal Monday morning after a 2 Â½ day closure at Morgan County R-II School District last week following an outbreak of the Norovirus among students and some faculty.
"(Monday morning) our high school is reporting 96 percent attendance, and our middle school is close to average at 92 percent attendance," reported Dr. Joyce Ryerson, assistant superintendent at Morgan County R-II School District in Versailles.
Ryerson the incident began on Wednesday when the high school principal noticed that several students had called off sick and 20-some additional students were coming into the office saying they felt ill. She said it was a high number for what they typically see during the flu season.
"Once the kids got into class, we ran the attendance numbers and noticed they were down around the mid- to low 80s (in percentage). We typically run around 93 percent on average for attendance," she explained. "For it to be in the 80s, we knew something was going on. The kids continued to come in and reporting they were sick or getting sick, and the attendance numbers continued to drop."
Ryerson said by 9 a.m., the administrators knew they had a problem and they conducted a quick meeting with all the administrators present to look at the attendance district-wide. She said the middle school was also lower than the normal average, and the decision was made to call off school early for everyone.
"We initially called off at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday and planned to close early on Thursday as well thinking that everyone would feel better by Friday," she explained. "In the mean time, we also met with the (Morgan) County Health Department, who determined it was the Norovirus that was causing the majority of the illnesses. They determined they we also needed to stay closed Friday, too."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website, the Norovius, often known as the "Norwalk-like virus," is a group of related, single-stranded RNA, non-enveloped viruses that cause acute gastroenteritis. The most common symptoms of acute gastroenteritis are diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain. The CDC states Noroviruses are commonly spread from person to person through contaminated food or water and by touching surfaces where the virus is present.
Ryerson said during the time the district was closed Thursday and Friday, custodian staff worked diligently to sterilize doorknobs, drinking fountains, desks, handrails and every surface, floor and equipment at the schools.
"We also used a device similar to a fogger used to kill bugs that sprays a disinfectant to kill viruses, mold and mildew at the schools," she said. "In addition, we had one of the bus drivers get ill, as well. So the bus drivers also aided in disinfecting the school buses on Wednesday. The staff and our custodians did a really good job."
Ryerson said the Wednesday and Thursday evening portions of the District Basketball tournament was also moved to Cole Camp due to the school's closing. However, it did return Saturday to Morgan County R-II, and the Versailles Tigers participated in the event, as well.
How are other Lake Area schools are doing?
Even though Camdenton R-III School District has not seen an overall outbreak to close the district down like Morgan County R-II last week, administrators have seen a few of its schools seeing lower attendance than normal due to illness.
According to Camdenton Assistant Superintendent Roma France, the school district's average attendance runs in the mid- to high 90s. Yet, she said she has seen a gradual decrease in each of the buildings in recent weeks.
"(On Feb. 24) Dogwood Elementary reported a 89 percent attendance; this is when we first started hearing the flu being reported. (On Friday) they reported a 76 percent attendance. We have also seen quite a bit of decrease at Oak Ridge Intermediate School, as well," she explained.
France said that even though these two buildings have seen decreases in attendance, most of the other buildings are reporting attendances in the 90 percentile.
"When we see two or three of our buildings with lower attendance due to illness, we act pretty aggressively to try to fight it. I don't remember us ever closing the district down completely for an extended period of time due to illness," she said, noting she has worked at the district for 29 years. "If we see two to three buildings being affected, we up our cleaning efforts to combat the issues. We have here recently set off disinfect bombs, heightened our cleaning efforts and even hired a few additional custodial staff to help keep our schools virus-free and prevent the illness from spreading. From what we understand, the virus can stay on a surface for up to two hours, so we try to isolate it and kill it quickly."
France said they really hadn't see any cases of illness, particularly the flu, until a few weeks ago. They got together with local health services and looked at CDC statistics in the region seeing 50 some reported cases about seven weeks ago and an exponential increase in recent weeks.
"On (Feb. 24) there were a reported 800 some cases in our region (which includes four-five states)," she added.
For two other Lake Area schools, attendance has remained steady and the Norovirus and other influenza strains, particularly with a late start to the flu season, have not affected their students and faculty.
"Do you hear me knocking?" said Dr. Brent Depee, superintendent of School of the
Osage, with a laugh. "Our attendance has been great so far this year. We have not seen any major illnesses here. We do a great job with flu (and virus) prevention and I'll brag on our custodians; they do a great job of cleaning desks, door knobs and all surfaces, making sure everything is as clean as possible."
Depee said in his 19 years of education, a good rule of thumb for attendance has been around 80 percent for a school district to close its doors due to heightened illnesses. He noted that a lot of times, the faculty get sick and it sometimes it is difficult to get substitutes.
"When we get to about 85 percent, we start looking really hard at the attendance and reasons why it is down. We communicate with each of our buildings early in the morning and again mid-morning to see if we need to take measures when attendance is lowered," he said.
At Eldon R-I School District, attendance has also remained steady, reporting just below 92 percent district-wide attendance last week.
"We have not noticed any extraordinary attendance issues yet this year. Our attendance is typically in the mid-90 percentile," said Colleen McGirl, secretary to superintendent Matt Davis. "Our attendance has been good. Our custodians have been instructed to spend the necessary time and effort to perform extra sanitization in all areas."
McGirl said she could not recall a time the school district was closed due to illness, and there is no district policy in place for this contingency. However, if an issue would arise, it would be handled at the superintendent's discretion.
Taking precaution during flu season
McGirl said at Eldon R-I, faculty and administrators advise parents to keep their child home if the child has a temperature of 100 degrees Farenheit, is vomiting, has a persistent cough, sore throat, rash or other active indicators of illness. This is a consistent precaution with other schools in the Lake Area region.
"They need be fever-free for 24 hours before sending them back to school," Depee said. "With the H1N1 a couple of years ago, that helped us teach our kids well. You see more people coughing or sneezing into the crook of their arm instead of their hands and the importance of hand washing to help prevent the spread of germs."
France said they also continually tell students to wash their hands, as well, and don't drink from someone else's glass. In addition, she said it is also helpful for students and staff to remember that if they have an immune deficiency, it is best for them to stay home if the building has experienced a lot of illness.
"If your child is vomiting or having diarrhea, it is simply best to stay home for at least 24 hours after the episode before coming back. And hand washing, hand washing, hand washing is critical during this time of year," Ryerson said.