Cherokee schools Superintendent Cory Ellis doesn't know when homecoming will be, but it certainly won't be Friday.
Half of the students in the Cherokee School District didn't show up for school Tuesday, Ellis said. Classes were called off for the rest of the week so a suspected flu outbreak wouldn't get worse. Homecoming, set for Friday, was shelved.
“I don't even know when we'll be able to have the dance,” Ellis said Tuesday morning. “We only have two home games left, and they're on a Tuesday and a Thursday.”
The Alfalfa County school district has 345 students in prekindergarten through high school. Monday, 87 students were out with flu-like symptoms. Tuesday, 171 were gone.
As the flu season ramps up across Oklahoma, several school districts on Tuesday reported higher-than-normal absenteeism.
The likely culprit in the northwestern Oklahoma town of Cherokee: the flu, Ellis said. A stomach bug going around isn't helping either, he said.
Ellis and the high school principal were sick last week. Teachers have been out, too. Co-workers have been covering for one another when a sub can't be found. But there really aren't that many children in the classrooms anyway.
“It's not conducive to learning,” Ellis said.
The third-grade class was down from 28 students to 16, and Ellis said Tuesday morning that he expected the number to shrink even more before school let out.
“What are you doing with those left?” he said. “They could probably have another couple kids fall out.”
The idea is for everybody to stay home — away from each other — and have plenty of time to recover.
Ellis said he expects classes to resume Monday.
In the mean time, a team of custodians and other staff members are scrubbing down the school while the students are gone.
Flu season creeps
Some schools are reporting an increase in absences as the flu spreads throughout Oklahoma.
Like Cherokee, Keifer Public Schools in Creek County has closed temporarily because of suspected flu cases this year, according to the state Education Department.
In Oklahoma City, three schools have reported a rise in absences, district spokeswoman Tierney Tinnin said.
• Monroe Elementary School, 4810 N Linn: More than 100 of 450 students sent home with flu-like symptoms. Four confirmed flu cases.
• North Highland Elementary School, 8400 N Robinson: Three teachers and more than 60 of 520 students absent Tuesday. No confirmed cases of flu.
• Jefferson Middle School, 6800 S Blackwelder: About 30 of 1,000 students sent home a day.
In the Putnam City School District, absences are steadily rising, district spokesman Steve Lindley said.
The first Monday in November, the district had about 1,000 absences. The first Monday in December, about 1,100 students were absent. This Monday, about 1,300 students were out of school. That's nearly 7 percent of the student body.
“We can't say why those numbers are climbing, but it's probably a combination of things,” Lindley said. “It's the flu, a stomach virus. There's strep (throat) going around.”
Absence rates have been normal in Tulsa, Tulsa Union and Edmond schools, representatives from the districts said Tuesday.
Schools set guidelines
When to close school is up to local officials, said Tricia Pemberton, a spokeswoman for the state Education Department.
Schools don't have a minimum attendance requirement, Pemberton said. If school district leaders ask for guidance, state workers suggest closing when absences reach about 15 percent.
The state Health Department also doesn't say when schools should close because of illness, epidemiologist Becky Coffman said. Instead, health workers help schools communicate with parents about the flu and other illnesses.
A school should have a plan for what to do when a child shows symptoms of the flu, Coffman said.
For example, a school should have a place where they can place a child away from other students until a parent arrives, she said. Also, the school should have at least one adult designated to supervise the child.
A child with the flu should not go back to school until he or she hasn't had a fever without taking medicine for at least 24 hours, she said.
Kids don't always have the best hygiene, which can create an environment that's easy to spread the flu in, Coffman said.
“Kids can pick it up and spread it among themselves more easily than adults,” she said.
About half of all children ages 6 months to 18 years old receive the flu vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“While it's not a perfect vaccine, it reduces your chance of getting the flu, and it definitely reduces your chance of getting severe flu,” Coffman said.
So far this flu season, 27 Oklahomans ages 5 to 18 have stayed in a hospital because of the virus, according to the most recent state Health Department figures. It's the lowest rate of any bracket. No deaths have been reported for the age group.
Contributing: Staff Writers Vallery Brown
and Jaclyn Cosgrove