Flu taking its toll on Georgia schools and colleges

School districts and colleges in Georgia are spending more time on a duty as important as educating students – keeping their classrooms clear of the flu.

In one of the worst flu seasons in nearly a decade, Georgia has been hit hard. More than 50 Georgians have died from the flu this winter, including 15-year-old Kira Molina, who attended Newnan High School. The health care company Kinsa last week called it the sickest state in the U.S., estimating 7 percent of Georgia’s population was sick with the flu. And schools are seeing the effect, in empty seats in classrooms, offices and even behind the wheel of buses.

“In my 14-years in the Irwin County School System, this is the single largest staff absenteeism due to the flu that we have experienced,” said Thad Clayton, superintendent of the district about two hours south of Atlanta. “We’re having a hard time getting subs to fill in.”

Some of metro Atlanta’s largest school districts are reporting above-average student absences while others say it’s about average. Nearly 20 schools in Fulton and Gwinnett counties had at least one day last week when more than 10 percent of its students were absent. The statewide daily student absentee rate is about five percent. Administrators in those districts are immediately notified when a school has more than 10 percent student absences on a particular day.

Irwin County Elementary School in Ocilla will close on Thursday and Friday because of the large number of teachers who are sick. Forsyth County had so many ill bus drivers and monitors one day last week that transportation department staff with commercial driver’s licenses were enlisted to drive some school buses.

Augusta University has seen a three-fold increase in reported flu cases so far this year, said Dr. Robert Dollinger, its director of student health.

Public college campuses like Augusta are seeing more students with the flu than last year, officials said. Health officials on several campuses are sharing information about the flu with students and sterilizing medical equipment. Emory University’s preventative measures have included hand sanitizers at various locations on campus. Emory, the state’s largest private university, has had 177 cases of influenza and influenza-type illness since New Year’s Day. Emory had 27 cases at this time last year.

Augusta University has ordered more flu vaccines. Dollinger wants to offer free flu vaccines for all students there this fall. The hard part, he said, is convincing students they need to get the shots.

“People tend to forget even 30 percent protection is better than no protection,” Dollinger said.

University of Georgia professor Ted Ross, an influenza expert who is conducting vaccine research, said only one-fifth of his students typically get the flu shots.

Most of those who’ve died in Georgia were over age 65. Ross, whose work focuses on studying the flu by some age groups, said older adults have weaker immune systems, so they’re at greater risk of death to influenza.

The school districts say although there’s no way to know how many of their absences were related to the flu or flu-like symptoms, they aren’t taking any chances.

Many schools are deputizing teachers to help custodial crews clean commonly-used areas and wipe places students frequently touch, such as light switches.

Rebecca Zwang’s 11-year-old daughter, Camryn, has had the flu for four days. Camryn, a fifth-grader at East Side Elementary School in Cobb County, got a flu shot last fall, but “it’s been everywhere,” her mom said. Several classmates had flu-like symptoms last week, Zwang said.

Camryn has Type 1 diabetes, so Zwang said she’s extra careful to keep her from places where she could get the flu, which has meant she has not going to church in recent weeks.

Zwang thought Camryn was over the worst of her illness, but she had constant headaches Wednesday.

“It’s been brutal,” Zwang said. “But tomorrow, we hope to see an improvement.”

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