The flu is leaving a mark on America’s schools that rivals the effects of the disastrous flu season of 2017-2018. Schools in at least 12 states across the United States have closed because so many students are calling in sick — even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention don’t have official guidelines for school closures due to flu.
Mona Patel, a spokesperson for the CDC, tells Inverse that the public health institution only provides guidelines for school closings in severe circumstances, like worldwide outbreaks.
“The decision should consider the number and severity of cases in an outbreak (looking at national, regional, and local data), the risks of flu spread and benefits of closure, and the problems that school closure can cause for families and communities,” she says.
But school systems in a number of states have decided that this year, the benefits of closure outweighs the inconvenience. As CNN reported Friday, there is no official tally, but this month, school districts in Alabama, Michigan, New Jersey, Kentucky, Minnesota and numerous others already canceled classes for at least one day in response to the number of students who have called in sick, according to local news reports. Given the number of students who choosing to stay home, school administrators just don’t see the point in having class.
It’s All Up to the Community
The US experienced a similar situation in the 2017-2018 flu season, schools in at least a dozen states closed down in an attempt to stem the spread of illness throughout their student bodies. As common as school closings due to flu outbreaks are becoming, the CDC generally neither provides guidelines for when schools should close their doors due to the flu, nor does it actually recommend closing schools due to flu on its guidelines for school administrators.
It has only issued advice for specific situations. For instance, during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, the CDC initially recommended closing schools for up to 14 days, they later advised that schools shouldn’t immediately close down if a new infection was detected.
Ultimately, the decision to close schools largely comes down to the costs and benefits of staying open for each individual community, says Patel.
Should Schools Be Shut Down?
Despite some evidence that closing schools can actually help stop the spread of flu, Patel adds that there are significant costs to closing schools — for instance for working parents who must immediately seek childcare — that make the decision a tricky one, which is why most schools won’t decide to close unless things get pretty dire. She adds that schools won’t close in response to high rates of flu in the area but will wait to see how it directly affects students.
The most recent round of schools that closed in response to the flu did so based on the number of students phoned in sick on a given day. This month, four school systems in Alabama were closed after over ten percent of students called in sick. Some districts wait it out a bit longer. Schools in Minnesota closed last week after nearly 20 percent of students were absent. In Michigan, one elementary school had 45 percent of students call in sick earlier this month, prompting the district to also close middle and high schools.
Scientists elsewhere have made the case to act more quickly to prevent flu spread. In a 2009 analysis of flu rates in 54 Japanese schools between 2004 and 2008, researchers argued schools close down due to flu outbreaks after only five percent of students call in sick in a single day. Furthermore, they recommended the same for situations where four percent of students call in sick for two days or more than three percent were missing from school after three days. These thresholds are far below those used among American schools in recent years.
For now, Patel says that the best thing to do during flu season is to keep sick students out of school in the first place. “In absence of a closure, the CDC does recommend social distancing during a severe flu outbreak,” she says. While canceling school goes a long way to keep sick students away from healthy ones, the costs are great, and the same effect can also achieved by just keeping sick kids at home.
Still, given the spread of flu throughout their students, school administrators throughout the country seem to prefer another approach. They would rather just give everyone a few days off and wait out the influenza storm.