March 19, 2018
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Aroostook County sees spike in school absences

By Jen Lynds, BDN Staff

HODGDON, Maine — School administrators in Aroostook County are hoping the Thanksgiving break gave students time to ward off flulike symptoms that contributed to higher than average rates of absenteeism among students in the past two weeks.

Earlier last month, when schools across the state began reporting high rates of absenteeism among students, few Aroostook County schools were affected.

Now, more districts are seeing larger numbers of ill students. Some students have been out with confirmed cases of H1N1 influenza.

“Before Thanksgiving, we had 20 percent of our elementary school students absent due to flulike symptoms,” said SAD 70 Superintendent Robert McDaniel. “But that number was much lower at the high school. In the weeks before the break, we had about 15 percent of our elementary students out sick. In the days before Thanksgiving, it went up to 20 percent.”

McDaniel said more students are back to school this week.

“We are hoping that they had time to recuperate over Thanksgiving,” he said. “So far this week, absenteeism has not been bad.”

In Presque Isle, SAD 1 Superintendent Gehrig Johnson said Monday afternoon that districtwide attendance was “back to normal” after a spike in absences before Thanksgiving.

“The week before Thanksgiving, between 15 and 20 percent of our students were out sick,” he said. “Our normal rate of absenteeism at this time of year is between 6 and 8 percent. But our students get the entire week of Thanksgiving off, and I really think that was a good thing this year. It gave the students a chance to rest and get better.”

He said the district had a confirmed case of H1N1 several weeks ago.

“Right now, about 10 percent of our students are absent, so it is getting better,” said Johnson.

In Fort Kent, SAD 27 Superintendent Patrick O’Neil said Tuesday that most students were back to school after close to 22 percent of them were out sick before Thanksgiving.

“The numbers are back to normal now, and I think it is because we gave them an extended Thanksgiving break,” he said. “When we were putting together the district calendar for 2009-2010, we were aware of fears of a flu pandemic. We decided at the time to give them an extra day for Thanksgiving break. That gave us time to disinfect our buildings, and I think that helped a lot.”

O’Neil said there have been two confirmed cases of H1N1 in the district.

H1N1 flu continues to be widespread in Maine at this point, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 9,900 doses of H1N1 vaccine have been distributed in The County. Vaccine continues to trickle into the region.

In Caribou, Frank McElwain, superintendent for the Caribou School District, credited the H1N1 vaccine with helping to keep absences down.

“Absenteeism has not been that bad here,” he said Tuesday. “The day or two before Thanksgiving more than 15 percent of our students were absent in some of our buildings, but that was mainly due to a stomach flu we had going through.”

He added that close to 700 students in the district have been vaccinated against H1N1, and many have been vaccinated against the seasonal flu.

“I think that might have had an impact,” he said. “But we also have implemented other procedures, such as helping students keep their hands clean and teaching them to cough into their sleeves. The more preventative we can be, the better.”

Nine reported deaths have been attributed to H1N1 influenza in Maine since August. All people who have died so far in Maine have had underlying health conditions, most of which were very serious.

In a normal flu season in Maine, an estimated 150 people die, about a dozen outbreaks occur in long-term care facilities, and usually fewer than a half-dozen schools report high absentee rates.


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