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When the Flu Shuts Down School District
Written by Dr. Tom Deighan, LPS Superintendent
Friday, January 26, 2018

 

When news media began reporting on a tough flu season, Lawton Public Schools staff began monitoring student and staff absences.  I personally spoke to the Comanche County Health Department, who in turn, contacted the Acute Disease Service at the Oklahoma State Department of Health.  Health authorities do not have standards regarding a tipping point for absences in a school district. They were lifesavers, however, regarding the day-to-day realities of a flu outbreak: staying home until fever-free for 24 hours, vigilant hand-washing, and constant cleaning.  From these discussions, guidance from Fort Sill, and resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), we know we have two prime factors contributing to the spread of flu: infected people and infected surfaces.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) webpage Guidance for School Administrators to Help Reduce the Spread of Seasonal Influenza in K-12 Schools, “Flu viruses are thought to spread mainly from person to person through coughs and sneezes of infected people. Less often, a person also might get the flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, eyes, or nose.”  Our district-wide absences of staff and students seemed to be spiking in the final days of last week.  In addition to more than 2,000 students, we were prepared for 300 staff members to be out on Friday. Neighboring districts faced similar challenges.  The situation was critical. 

Another CDC webpage How to Clean and Disinfect Schools to Help Slow the Spread of Flu advises: “Most studies have shown that the flu virus can live and potentially infect a person for up to 48 hours after being deposited on a surface . . . standard cleaning and disinfecting practices are sufficient to remove or kill them.”  From this and other sources, we saw value in emptying the buildings for enough time to ensure any viruses present died.  Our staff has worked tirelessly to disinfect our buildings, but no amount of cleaning can ensure we kill every germ . . . but time can kill the flu virus. Our buildings and buses needed to be empty for an entire weekend.

One of the more unfortunate results of this flu crisis was the need to cancel district-wide extra-curricular activities as well.  Health Department officials personally advised me that closing schools would not help in such a large district if we still required staff and students to participate in extra-curricular activities all weekend.  Crowding our students together in buses, locker rooms, and gymnasiums would not help. Ultimately, there is no way I can decide that the health of students in extra-curricular activities is less important than the health of our students in the classroom, so I extended the closure to all activities.  All accounts from the press, school data, and social media indicated that the flu had reached a critical level. If the health threat is critical for one group of students, it is critical for all students.       

Thankfully, our region exhibited wide-spread agreement on the seriousness of this issue.  Local school districts consulted closely, but each district handled it differently based on its own characteristics and needs.  I am personally thankful for our local school superintendents, health officials, Fort Sill leadership, and other resources that have been available during this time.  No one knows – not even the CDC or the Health Department – if closing school will break the cycle, but we know that having sick students and staff together was not working. I understand that my decision cannot please everyone.  As superintendent of Lawton Public Schools, I will not point fingers at anyone else for this decision, not other districts, social media, agencies, or officials. By policy, this is a decision only I can make for LPS, so please do not blame school board members, principals, or other staff if it was too late, not long enough, or it disrupted a very important event.  God willing, this will break the cycle.   You may contact me at tom.deighan@lawtonps.org if you have any questions, concerns, or complaints.