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Flu outbreak threatens more disruptions for Tennessee schools

No disaster, says one expert, but ‘there will be some small effect on student learning’

Medical staff work in the hallway of Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Tennessee.

Medical staff at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis in 2021. While COVID has waned since then, the hospital is seeing more children with flu and flu-related illnesses.

Courtesy of Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital

Districts throughout Tennessee and the nation are working to help students recover from learning losses spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. But another respiratory illness is threatening to undermine that work.

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

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

The majority of those visits were from patients aged 5 to 24. 

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

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

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

What they’re seeing likely reflects the fact that, as of Dec. 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 flu activity in the nation. 

If the situation worsens, it could impede students’ recovery from COVID learning loss not just through temporary school closures, but through absences of teachers during a time of staffing shortages, said Bradley Marianno, professor of education policy and higher education at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

“There’s not a lot of research in terms of flu-related disruptions, but we do know that instructional time matters for students, and that these absences caused by sickness will impact student learning,” said Marianno, whose research has examined, among other things,  the pandemic’s effect on teachers and teachers’ unions.

School closings due to flu will likely be a repeat of 2010, during the H1N1 pandemic, he said. That outbreak of swine flu led some 700 schools in the U.S. to close for anywhere from three days to two weeks. 

Complicating that situation, though, is that school districts are grappling with post-COVID-19 personnel shortages, Marianno said. 

“You get to a situation where you can no longer staff the schools effectively,” he said. “If Tennessee is like other places around the country where we have substitute shortages, it can still be difficult to keep the schools open even if a large number of students are healthy enough to be in the classroom.

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

The COVID-19 crisis showed that such disruptions in schools do not affect all kids the same, Marianno said. 

“They affect the kids who don’t have the same resources at home for learning,” he said.

To contain the spread of flu in classrooms, Memphis-Shelby County Schools  “works closely with the health department on guidance for handling any confirmed cases of an infectious disease,” the district said in a statement.

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

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

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

McNairy’s director of schools, Greg Martin, told WREG-TV that the flu was taking a toll on support staff as well as students. Nearly 4,000 students are enrolled in that district’s 10 schools.

In the meantime, the Memphis school district has issued a guide to parents on what to do if their children show signs of flu or flu-related illnesses, as well as regular steps, such as hand-washing, to kill viruses.

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

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