Flu, virus outbreaks hit Sacramento County school district budgets

Published: Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013 - 1:52 pm

Thousands of Sacramento County schoolchildren have stayed home with the flu in recent months.

Add to that a rash of noroviruses, and school districts across the region have taken a one-two punch. The result: More empty chairs in the classrooms and fewer dollars in school coffers.

The Bee has calculated that losses from illness amount to more than $1 million for one local school district.

Districts are funded in part by money they get from the state based on their average daily attendance. A nasty bug can take a bite out of already limited school budgets.

Twin Rivers Unified is among the local districts hit hard by illness. The flu season got off to a unhealthy start at the district of 31,600 students with 12,585 student sick days over 22 days in October, according to district officials.

Numbers stayed high in November and December, with 17,895 students out sick over 28 school days, according to district data. January was "horrid" – with 13,494 out sick over 17 days, said Bonita Mallory, the district's coordinator of student health, wellness and prevention. "Definitely our highest number of absences."

February isn't getting much better. The district had already racked up 1,774 student sick days by Wednesday.

"H1N1 in 2009 was the last time we saw anything like this," Mallory said.

The district loses $33 a day for each absent child – a total of about $1.5 million since Oct. 1, according to Bee calculations.

It isn't clear whether the district benefited from a state law that allows districts to request an emergency waiver when more than 10 percent of a school's students are absent.

Folsom Cordova Unified hasn't had to use the waiver this flu season, although school officials said they've gotten close at Williamson Elementary School. Last Tuesday 42 kids at the school were sick with a variety of symptoms, including vomiting, diarrhea, nausea and stomach cramping, which usually go with a norovirus, said Mary Ann Delleney, coordinator of health programs at the district.

"It's a powerful virus that's for sure," she said.

Noroviruses are a group of related viruses, according to the website of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The illnesses can be serious in the elderly and young children, but most people recover in a few days, according to the CDC.

Delleney said parents should keep kids home for 24 hours after symptoms such as fever, diarrhea and vomiting have subsided.

She cautions that a norovirus isn't as easy to kill with hand sanitizers.

"They need to wash their hands for 30 seconds with hot water and soap," she said.

The trend at Williamson continued last week with 37 sick Wednesday and 40 Thursday at the school of 600, although Delleney said the school is seeing more symptoms associated with influenza.

Officials at Folsom Cordova Unified are reporting higher than usual numbers of students out sick districtwide. The district loses $30 a day when a child is ill.

Galt Joint Union Elementary School District reports it has had about 1,100 student sick days per month since October, when flu season began. The district of 4,000 receives about $28 a day in attendance funding per student.

Elk Grove Unified is reporting that it hasn't seen much of an increase in absences due to illness over last year, but most other districts are experiencing an uptick.

"We have definitely seen a higher volume of calls from school sites requesting information about flu and precautions," said Dominic Covello, a program manager at San Juan Unified.

The district loses $39.60 each day a child is out sick.

The total impact of the flu or noroviruses countywide isn't clear, as neither is required to be reported to the health department and many parents don't tell school officials why their children are sick.

"Sometimes they say they're sick, and they are going to Disneyland," Delleney said. "We don't really know.

"If they will tell us what it is, it will really help."

Teachers also are being stricken with the bug, resulting in an additional cost to districts to pay substitutes. Delleney said sick teachers should stay home, nonetheless.

"Teachers hate to miss school, but they can expose 35 kids if they have something," she said.

Although there is no immunization for noroviruses, all students should get immunized for influenza, said Dr. Olivia Kasirye, Sacramento County public health officer.

She said seven Sacramento County residents have died and 16 have been hospitalized in intensive care because of the influenza this year.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Diana Lambert



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