TWIN FALLS — Magic Valley schools are starting to breathe a sigh of relief after a rough flu season and a whooping cough outbreak.
Earlier this month, three school districts — North Valley Academy in Gooding, Valley in Hazelton and Camas County — closed their campuses for one or two days because so many students and teachers were sick. And whooping cough cases were reported in Twin Falls, Kimberly and Minidoka County schools.
Now, school and health officials are starting to see some improvement, with fewer reported illnesses. And school attendance rates are rebounding toward normal levels.
“We are seeing a downward trend start to happen… we’re hoping that’s going to continue and fingers crossed, we’re on the downward slide of things and we’ll see less cases,” said Logan Hudson, nurse manager at South Central Public Health District.
Another piece of good news: There haven’t been any new whooping cough cases in schools since early February.
In the Minidoka County School District, attendance was worse this winter than the previous three years. “I’ve heard a lot about the flu and people having their kids out,” Superintendent Ken Cox said.
But overall, Cox said he thinks things are getting better and attendance rates are starting to improve.
To help prevent the spread of germs, school custodians sanitize desks more often. School nurses talk with elementary school classes to teach children about topics such as coughing into their elbow and washing their hands.
Since North Valley Academy reopened earlier this month, common areas at the school — such as computer labs — receive a deep cleaning multiple times per week. The student attendance rate has also improved.
The school also sent home information with parents about illnesses circulating this season, and sleep and nutritional habits.
“Especially for kids who aren’t getting adequate sleep, it makes it so much earlier to get sick,” school principal Jeff Klamm said.
When Valley School District closed its campus earlier this month, the attendance rate was hovering around 79 percent. The school closed on a Friday and since it’s on a four-day school week with Mondays off, students had four days to recover.
Teachers came in that Friday and along with the custodial crew, “we just did a deeper cleaning of all of our classrooms” and hallways, Superintendent Eric Anderson said. That included disinfecting common surfaces and things multiple people touch, such as doorknobs, lockers, laptops and desktop computers.
By the time students returned to school the following week, the attendance rate was back into the 90s. It has continued to improve and is now normal at 95-96 percent.
In total, 66 deaths across Idaho have been reported as a result of flu-related complications. Nine of those were here in south-central Idaho, all among people ages 50 and older.
But for the Jerome School District, it’s a typical season for illnesses and absences, Superintendent Dale Layne said. “We haven’t had some of the extremes like I know some school districts have seen.”
But when students are out sick, they’re gone for longer — a few more days than usual, Layne said.
Attendance rates in Twin Falls schools are fairly typical for this time of year, although they’re worse at some schools compared with last year. Overall, “it hasn’t been a noticeable change over previous years,” Bowman said.
To help prevent the spread of illness, school custodians disinfect common surfaces throughout the day and at night.
Beyond the flu and common colds, a few Magic Valley school districts have dealt with whooping cough. One case of whooping cough — also known as pertussis — was reported in early February at Canyon Ridge High School. Three students had the illness in Kimberly and two in Minidoka County.
Those diagnosed with pertussis suffer from coughing in “explosive bursts ending with the typical high-pitched whoop, and occasionally, vomiting,” according to the health district.
With the whooping cough case in the Twin Falls School District, school officials worked with the health district to draft a letter notifying Canyon Ridge High parents. The student was kept out of school until a doctor determined they were no longer contagious, school district operations director Ryan Bowman said.
When Jerome school officials heard about whooping cough affecting a few Magic Valley schools, “we did some extra thorough cleaning at our schools,” Layne said, and verified with cleaning product vendors the chemicals would take care of that particular illness.
In Twin Falls, school employees remind children to wash their hands, Bowman said, and to practice good hygiene habits to avoid spreading germs. But “anytime you’re in a public setting, that is tough to do.”