Columbia County student populations experienced a slight decline last week and school officials are pointing to a possible connection with a nationwide flu outbreak.
According to the latest percentages, two schools in Columbia County dipped below a 90 percent attendance rate, and others saw a slight decrease of three percent or less, according to district superintendent Dr. Sandra Carraway.
“I am thankful to say that, at this time, we are not experiencing extreme numbers of absences or students in the clinics with flu-like symptoms, although our average attendance is down by three or four percent,” Carraway said via email.
Evans High School’s attendance rate showed the largest decline at 86 percent Monday and Tuesday.
North Harlem Elementary experienced a three percent attendance decline from 92 percent attendance Monday to 89 percent Tuesday. And Evans Elementary saw a decline Monday from 94 percent attendance to 91 percent Tuesday.
In Richmond County, director of communications Kaden Jacobs said there has been a 25 percent decrease in attendance compared to this time last year but could not confirm that those are flu cases. Similar to Columbia County, the health department administers the flu shot to students at school if the parent signs a waiver allowing them to do so.
In Aiken County, school attendance at most schools held steady at 95 to 97 percent over the past three weeks, communications coordinator Mike Rosier said. The schools whose percentages were lower than that, he said, typically see lower attendance rates.
Lisa Whitlock, director of Student Health for Columbia County, had a clinic full of students at Brookwood Elementary School on Wednesday, but while attendance numbers are their best indicator, not all visits to the nurse or student absentee rates are flu-related.
“It shows us a trend but we can’t say well this school has this many kids out and they all have the flu, that’s impossible for us to know,” Whitlock said. “That’s our best indicator that maybe we are being impacted by the flu, because our attendance rate has gone down and our parents don’t just keep them out just to keep them out.”
Whitlock said students who experience flu-like symptoms and a fever of 100 or higher are sent home and must stay out of school for 24 hours fever free before they are allowed to return.
“We are sending kids home that have high 90 temperatures, if they’re 99 and not feeling well, and coughing, we will send them home. They absolutely have to go home if they’re 100 or above.”
The district regularly tracks student attendance during flu seasons, Whitlock said, and the community has seen far more severe flu seasons in years past.
“Several years back, we had a really bad flu season. I think this year’s it’s gotten so much media attention because it’s so widespread throughout the U.S. and normally it’s not like that, so the news has made a big deal about that,” Whitlock said. “But I appreciate that. People need to be alerted that it’s out there.”
And flu season may have peaked early this year.
“You think of the flu season as starting when it’s cold, but you have flu throughout the year, it just tends to peak at this season,” Whitlock said. “February is a huge peak for the flu season. We get weekly, and you can get daily, flu reports. And the CDC is saying that it looks like it is peaking already.”
Some 4,000 students participated in the flu shot program this year, which offered flu shots for all Columbia County school students and faculty through a partnership with the Public Department of Health.
Whitlock said next year she hopes to increase that number to 5,000 students.
In the meantime, Whitlock encourages parents to keep their children showing flu-like symptoms home and to continuously wash your hands.
“We are encouraging using tissues and throwing them away and washing your hands afterwards,” Whitlock said of precautions and prevention measures within schools. “Sending kids to us that are coughing, that have their heads down on the desk who obviously don’t feel well and wiping down doorknobs and those kinds of things. Our custodial staff has done a great job trying to stay on top of that as you can imagine it’s an all day thing. It’s just basic universal precautions, cover your cough, throw your tissues away, wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands, that’s the main thing.”