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Flu sends school kids home in droves

One of the worst influenza outbreaks in years at South Whidbey's schools has left classes depleted during the past two weeks.

Two weeks after the flu laid children at South Whidbey Intermediate School low, the queasy stomachs, aching heads, chills, coughs and stuffy noses have moved to Langley Middle School, where one-fourth of the student body was home sick Monday.

Marcia Statz, the school nurse for the South Whidbey School District, said Monday the flu had 263 students at home to start this school week. The middle school was the hardest hit, with 133 students of its 550 students out sick.

February and early March are typically the worst months in terms of student illnesses in Washington schools. Statz said this year's sick season has brought more true cases of influenza than usual, based on cultures taken from sick students in doctors' offices.

Flu-like illnesses are common this time of year, according to Phyllis Shoemaker, a staffer at the state's Department of Health. Writing to Statz last week, Shoemaker said true influenza typically is not so common.

She said the vast majority of illnesses that seem to be the flu are gastrointestinal related and include vomiting, diarrhea, cramps and high fevers that last 48 to 78 hours.

Statz said the students she has seen get sick at South Whidbey schools are dealing with illnesses that are taking five to six days to fight. That's longer than the two to three days many kids are used to, so many are not staying home to recover as long as they should.

"I think a number of the kids are coming back too soon," Statz said.

That may be especially true at the high school, where 9 percent or 74 students were out sick Monday. That percentage is the lowest at all the South Whidbey public schools. Statz said students there tend to go to class sick so they don't fall behind in class. That slows their recovery and exposes other students to illness.

She said students should not return to school until the fevers associated with the illnesses at the schools have been gone for at least 24 hours.

In past years, the February flu season had been broken by a late winter break that lasted up to four days. Statz said that break was often enough to stave off large cycles of infection and illness in the schools.

Using a February break to cut down on student sick days may, in the long run, be better for students. Superintendent Martin Laster said Monday that missing too many days hampers students' ability to learn. But at the present, the district can't make room in its calendar for a break.

Laster said the school district is in the first year of a two-year schedule that does not include such breaks. But, he said, the district will take into account the level of serious illnesses this year when it plans the 2004-2005 biennium.

"That will be a discussion again," said Laster.

According to Shoemaker, influenza cases peaked in the week of Feb. 23 to March 1. On South Whidbey, the illness seems to be rolling through one school at a time. In addition to the cases at the middle and high schools, the South Whidbey Primary School had 10 percent or 36 of its students out sick this week. The intermediate school was missing 47 children, 11 percent.

According to the Department of Health, influenza is viral, so there is no miracle drug cure. Bed rest and liquids can help, while acetaminophen can lessen fever and body aches. Antibiotics can help fight secondary infections, like those causing ear and chest infections common in the schools at present.

Shoemaker said reports of school absenteeism related to flulike illness have decreased in the past two weeks, but absenteeism has increased in King and Kitsap Peninsula areas. School nurse Statz said she expects South Whidbey to be part of that group by midweek.

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