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This Flu Season May Be Among the Worst of Past Decade and It's Not Peaked Yet

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With this flu season on track to be among the worst in the past decade, schools need to be vigilant in messaging that students wash their hands and get vaccinated.

The severity of the outbreak for 2019-20 is paralleling the trajectory of flu cases from previous bad years: 2014-15 and 2017-18, according to the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.

Although there's a chance the season could fizzle out, the number of flu cases will likely continue to rise. The flu usually hits its peak in mid- to late-January, so we may not have seen the worst of it, yet.

"It's always dangerous to predict how it will turn out, but if you look at the early indicators and the trajectory of the breakout ... this looks like it's heading toward being a pretty bad year," said Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

So far this flu season, 6.4 million people have gotten sick with 55,000 hospitalizations, according to estimates put out by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The number of deaths from flu thus far is 2,900.

What Schools Can Do to Combat Flu

Fauci recommends that students, teachers, and other school staff wash their hands as much as possible and that schools encourage parents to get their children vaccinated against the flu. And even though we are several months into the flu season, it's not too late to get a vaccine, according to the CDC.

"The overriding thing is: get your kids vaccinated," Fauci said. "Vaccines are extremely important, particularly if you're having a year like this one."

Since 2010, CDC estimates that flu-related hospitalizations among children younger than 5 years old have ranged from 7,000 to 26,000 in the United States. 

A bad flu year has repercussions for schools beyond sick students missing lots of instructional days—especially if teachers and other critical staff end up taking sick leave in droves. 

Teachers of course are exposed to lots of germs in their classrooms and interactions with lots of children. Microbiologists at the University of Arizona who examined the germs on the desks, computers, and phones of several different professions, as part of a 2006 study funded by the cleaning supply company Clorox, found that teachers had the germiest workspaces compared to eight other professions.

A study by the National Sanitation Foundation, which examined the germs at two Michigan schools, ranked the 10 germiest items in schools. The germiest locations were water fountains, worse even than students' hands and school toilets.

In its guidance for school administrators on preventing flu, the CDC recommends that school leaders encourage sick teachers and staff members to stay home and implement policies that allow for sick time to be easily taken. 

But teachers may be hesitant to take time off when they get sick—sometimes out of dedication to the work and sometimes because of district incentives to horde vacation days.

Teaching while sick is an issue addressed in a recent piece on weareteachers.com that's gone viral in the teaching community. The piece argues that among other issues, teachers not taking sick days is a good way to spread the flu.

Related stories:

Image credit: Getty 

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