School flu closures could disrupt recovery from COVID-related learning losses

School flu closures could disrupt recovery from COVID-related learning losses

Districts in Tennessee and across the country are working to help students recover from learning losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. But another respiratory illness threatens to undermine that work.

Last month, flu outbreaks caused schools to close in at least 10 districts. And while the spread of the flu hasn’t caused any schools in Shelby County to close, the area isn’t immune to the threat.

According to Shelby County Health Department data as of Dec. 1, 7.6 percent of emergency department visits were for influenza and flu-like illnesses. During the same period last year, this figure was around 2.4%.

The majority of these visits were from patients between the ages of 5 and 24.

Dr. Nick Hysmith, medical director of infection control at LeBonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, said he believes the lack of a true flu season during the pandemic — when people were masked and distancing social – plus an earlier flu season, likely fueling the increase.

Also, Hysmith said, many children may not have had their flu shots yet.

Still, he said, LeBonheur hasn’t seen a case of childhood flu “to the extent of what we’re seeing right now.”

What they see likely reflects the fact that, as of December 2, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, California and Washington as the states with the highest levels of influenza activity in the nation.

If the situation worsens, it could prevent students from recovering from learning loss due to COVID, not only through temporary school closures, but through teacher absences during a time of staff shortages, said Bradley Marianno, professor of educational policy and higher education at the University of Nevada. in Las Vegas.

“There is not much research on flu-related disruptions, but we know that teaching time is important for students and that these absences caused by illness will impact student learning” , said Marianno, whose research has examined, among other things, the effect of the pandemic on teachers and teacher unions.

School closures due to the flu will likely be a repeat of 2010, during the H1N1 pandemic, he said. This swine flu outbreak led some 700 schools in the United States to close for three days to two weeks.

Complicating that situation, however, school districts are grappling with post-COVID-19 staffing shortages, Marianno said.

“You get to a situation where you can’t effectively staff schools anymore,” he said. “If Tennessee is like other places in the country where we have surrogate shortages, it can still be difficult to keep schools open even if a large number of students are healthy enough to be in class.

“I wouldn’t call it a disaster,” he added, “but there will be a small effect on student learning.”

The COVID-19 crisis has shown that such disruptions in schools do not affect all children equally, Marianno said.

“They affect children who don’t have the same resources at home to learn,” he said.

To contain the spread of influenza in classrooms, Memphis-Shelby County schools are “working closely with the health department on guidance to manage any confirmed cases of infectious disease,” the district said in a statement. a statement.

Any decision to close a school is based on “local health authority guidelines, recommendations and district safety protocols,” the district said.

Marianno said the threshold for most districts to decide to close schools because of the flu is usually when they realize they don’t have enough staff.

That appears to be the threshold McNairy County, just east of Shelby County, reached when district officials closed schools Nov. 4 due to a flu outbreak.

McNairy Schools Superintendent Greg Martin told WREG-TV the flu was taking its toll on support staff as well as students. Nearly 4,000 students are enrolled in the 10 schools in this district.

Meanwhile, the Memphis School District has released a guide for parents on what to do if their children show signs of the flu or flu-related illnesses, as well as regular measures, such as hand washing, to kill viruses.

“As the health and safety of students and staff remains our top priority, we will continue to monitor developments closely,” the MSCS statement read.

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