Due to a high number of student absences and an increased rate of influenza-like illness going around the community, Tullahoma City Schools officials opted to end the school week early.

The decision to close schools for Thursday, Feb. 7, and Friday, Feb. 8, was announced the by district early Wednesday afternoon on the district’s social media pages, telling students and teachers alike to “get well, Tullahoma!”

According to Director of Schools John Carver, absences due to illness increased heavily throughout the week, though district administration had been monitoring the number of student absences since early last week, when schools were closed on Tuesday, Jan. 29 due a combination of anticipated winter weather and the spike in illness in the school community.

“We were starting to track the numbers last week when we thought it was going to be a snow day and it wasn’t a snow day,” Carver said. “We had kids go home sick last Monday and we thought the kids being out of school Tuesday … might help on our numbers for kids being sick, but when the kids came back … the number of kids going home sick continued to increase.”

Carver shared on Twitter that the number of student absences districtwide had reached 13 percent on Monday, Feb. 4. By Wednesday, he told The News, there were even more absences in individual schools. Tullahoma High School, he said, saw around 20 percent student absences.

Carver said district officials had contacted county health officials to see about the number of reported cases of influenza in the area and were notified that there had been “an uptick” in the number of flu cases in the county health department clinics.

Tullahoma wasn’t the only district to close schools for the rest of the week. Franklin County Schools announced on Tuesday that students would be able to stay home due to a high number of illnesses. Franklin County Schools were closed Wednesday through Friday in order to allow everyone time to rest and recuperate from any ailments going around.

By closing school for the rest of the week, Carver said it would give all those with the flu time to rest and recuperate, as well as give the district time to go into all the school buildings and disinfect them.

Carver said the cleaning procedures included wiping down all of the desks with disinfectants, thoroughly cleaning all restroom facilities and disinfecting any frequently-used classroom tools, such as Chromebooks.

Additionally, Carver said, students at Tullahoma High School were recommended to wipe down and disinfect their cellphones.


Flu season

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the 2018-2019 flu season is “well underway,” with an estimated 6 to 7 million cases of people sick with the flu nationwide.

Of those who have contracted the flu, the CDC estimates between 69,000 and 84,000 people have been hospitalized because of it.

“CDC expects flu activity to continue for weeks and continues to recommend flu vaccination and appropriate use of antiviral medications,” the CDC website reads.

According to the most recent “flu map” from the CDC, which reports on flu activity by week, there was widespread flu activity in nearly all 50 states as of Jan. 26, excluding Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Indiana and West Virginia. Alaska and Hawaii only have some local activity, according to the map, whereas Colorado, Indiana and West Virginia are seeing regional activity.

For the most part this flu season, the majority of cases of flu have been of the H1N1 strains, the CDC states; however, in the southeast, H3N2 strains have been the most commonly reported.

Both the CDC and the Tennessee Department of Health recommend getting an influenza vaccination as the “first line of defense” against contracting the flu.

The Coffee County Health Department offers flu shots for free. The Tullahoma clinic is located at 615 Wilson Ave.


Lower severity

Despite the school closures in the area, the CDC reports that current flu activity is so far less severe than in previous years, though that may change in the weeks to come.

“At this time,” according to the CDC, “severity indicators are lower than they were during a similar time frame last season.”

Last flu season, influenza-like illnesses (ILI) peaked at 7.5 percent. This week’s total rests at just 3.5 percent. Overall hospitalizations for ILI this week rank at 9.1 per 100,000 cases. For the same time last season, the rate was 30.5 per 100,000.

Also this season, the number of pneumonia and influenza deaths has not exceeded “the epidemic threshold.” In comparison, last season saw pneumonia and influenza deaths “at or above the epidemic threshold for 16 consecutive weeks.”

Despite the apparent lower severity of this year’s flu season, the CDC still cautions that it is still “taking a serious toll.”


Allotted snow days

Thursday and Friday’s closings mean the district has already exhausted all of its allotted “snow days” for the school year.

According to Carver, the district only allocated three days to be used for inclement weather or other closures, meaning any future school closures will have to be made up in some way.

In the past, 1 o’clock dismissal days have been the first ones altered in order to make up for lost time. Another option Carver said he’s used in previous positions is to add instructional days onto the end of the school year.

As of now, however, any discussion on how to make up for additional closures is premature. Carver said his main wish is for everyone to stay home and rest as much as they need to in order to come back to school on Monday recharged and ready to learn.

“It gets back to good hygiene,” he said. “Cover your mouth when you cough and cough into your arm and not your hand.”

That, coupled with properly washing your hands, Carver said, was the ultimate way to keep the flu from spreading any more.

Erin McCullough may be reached at emccullough@tullahomanews.com.