Swine flu closes Williston schools (6/11/09)

June 11, 2009

Tim Simard

Observer staff

Summer vacation started a little early for Williston students this year.

Over fears of a growing swine flu outbreak within the Williston School District, officials have shut down the schools for the rest of the academic year. The last day of school was Wednesday, two days before the scheduled close of school.

Williston became the first school district in the state to shut down early due to novel influenza A (H1N1) virus, commonly known as swine flu.

As of press deadline Wednesday, District Principal Walter Nardelli said 17 students and five staff members at Williston Central School were experiencing flu-like symptoms. Allen Brook School had four sick children — all kindergarten students — as of press deadline.

Last week, the school administration and Vermont Department of Health confirmed the first case of swine flu in Williston. An Allen Brook student apparently contracted the virus while visiting friends out of state.

By Wednesday, Nardelli said five new swine flu cases had been confirmed — three in Allen Brook kindergarten classes and two at Williston Central. The other flu-like cases in the district had not been confirmed as H1N1 virus.

Nardelli e-mailed parents on Monday informing them that, as of Tuesday, kindergarten classes would be canceled for the rest of the year due to the swine flu cases at Allen Brook.

On Tuesday, the Vermont Department of Health released updated numbers on the H1N1 virus. Thirty-one Vermonters were confirmed to have had swine flu. None of the individuals were hospitalized and all have recovered or are recovering at home, according to a Health Department press release.

The updated numbers, which included the new Williston cases, led to the decision to close all Williston classrooms. Nardelli said the decision to close school Wednesday rather than Tuesday was to offer closure for students.

“Parents also need time to plan for day care for their students for the remainder of the week,” Nardelli said in an e-mail to the Observer.

Susan Schoenfeld, Vermont’s deputy state epidemiologist, said the district is taking a “very reasonable precaution” in closing the schools.

“I think they’re looking at this very cautiously and very practically as well,” Schoenfeld said.

She said other schools in Vermont have, in the past, temporarily closed due to seasonal flu outbreaks.

She doesn’t believe the school administration is overreacting to the H1N1 virus. With suspected swine flu cases increasing at a fast rate in Williston, it makes sense to close schools a few days before the end of the year, she said. While it won’t stop the spread of the flu through the community, shutting down the schools might slow the spread, she added.

Nardelli said the early closure would not violate Department of Education regulations for the number of days schools should be open. The state minimum is 175 days and Williston schools are typically open 180 days per year. By closing Wednesday, the district will have completed 178 school days.

Thursday’s eighth grade graduation at Williston Central is still scheduled to take place. Students are asked to gather at Meeting House at 6 p.m. for the 6:30 p.m. event. The administration has asked anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms, including graduates, to stay home.

Beyond Williston schools

In addition to the Williston School District, Champlain Valley Union High School reported one case of swine flu on Tuesday. No further cases had been confirmed at the high school as of Wednesday’s press deadline.

McMannon said students will carry on with their exam schedule and business will continue as usual.

“We’ve had a heightened cleaning regimen going on,” said CVU Principal Sean McMannon.

Also on Tuesday, the Williston Fire Department announced that EMS responders would wear face masks as a precaution to all calls until the outbreak subsides, according to Melanie Watson, the fire chief’s assistant.

Schoenfeld said swine flu acts a lot like the seasonal flu, with similar symptoms and risks. She said people with underlying medical conditions could find the swine flu very dangerous, as they would any other flu.

“You should never be complacent with any type of flu,” Schoenfeld said.

She said no vaccine has been created for this strain of H1N1 virus, but one is under development and could be ready by mid to late fall. She said there is speculation the swine flu could evolve into a more dangerous strain in the fall, or it could simply fade away.

“There is really no way of knowing at this point,” Schoenfeld said.

Preventing the spread of swine flu

Taking simple steps and precautions can reduce the likelihood of contracting and spreading novel influenza A (H1N1) virus. Parents are urged to teach their children the following steps as well:

•    Cover your mouth and nose every time you cough or sneeze. 

•    Use a tissue when possible and throw it in the trash after use. 

•    Wash hands often and well. Wash for as long as it takes to sing the “ABC” song. 

•    Using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is also effective.

•    Try to avoid close contact with sick people.

More information, tools and resources about swine flu, healthy habits and pandemic preparedness are available at the Health Department’s Web site, www.healthvermont.gov, or by calling 2-1-1.

Information provided by the Vermont Department of Health.