Sickness prompts school closings

Posted Nov. 10, 2009, at 8:22 p.m.

At least two school systems in Maine this week have canceled classes because of unusually high absentee rates.

After absences topped 50 percent Monday at Jonesport-Beals High School, officials closed three local schools until after Veterans Day, hoping to curb the spread of flu symptoms in staff and students.

Superintendent Colleen Haskell said the school was closed Tuesday because of the number of illnesses and on Wednesday for the Veterans Day holiday.

“We hope that when everyone returns Thursday, we will have broken the cycle,” she said Tuesday morning.

The school superintendent in Winthrop canceled classes for the rest of the week because of a swine flu outbreak there.

Stephen Cottrell said more than 25 percent of students and 17 staff members were out sick Tuesday. School was scheduled to be closed for the holiday Wednesday, but Cottrell said there would be no classes Thursday and Friday either so everyone can have time to get better.

Maine Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said more than 40 schools have reported high absenteeism, with 15 percent to almost 50 percent of students out sick at those schools Monday.

Haskell said she has no way of knowing how many students and staff are sick with the seasonal flu, H1N1, normal colds and sniffles, or are staying home to avoid exposing themselves to people who may be ill.

Haskell said there are three schools in the Jonesport-Beals system with a total of 260 students. She said all students share the same school buses and many are siblings. The youngest students appeared to be getting sick first and then it spread throughout the school community, she said.

“We started last week with a 15 percent absence rate, and within two days we were at 25 percent,” she said. When the rate hit 50 percent Monday at the high school as well as four teachers at the elementary school level, she decided to act.

“I don’t think all of the 50 percent had the flu,” she said. Many parents opted to keep children home and even substitute teachers were refusing to come into the schools.

“We have a seasonal flu clinic set for Thursday [at the high school] and we are hoping to get 100 doses of H1N1 vaccine,” she said.

Meanwhile, Haskell said students who are not feeling well should not return to school Thursday, especially if they are running a fever.

“Stay home,” she advised people who are feeling sick.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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