October just started, but attendance rates at Wichita schools are looking more like they do during the midwinter height of flu season.
"It's everywhere," said Kathy Hubka, coordinator of health services for the Wichita district. "We are seeing more cases of influenza-like illness, more kids home sick."
Sick kids seem to be scattered across the city, Hubka said, not clustered at any particular school. Some schools — such as Jefferson Elementary, which recorded 70 absences Tuesday and 66 Wednesday — are noticing larger spikes.
"I've never seen it like this," said Janice Aschenbrenner, principal at Jefferson. "Lots and lots of sick kids."
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A high school volleyball match between Wichita Northwest and Bishop Carroll was postponed Tuesday because several Northwest players were sick. The schools also postponed the junior varsity and freshman matches.
"A couple girls came to school Tuesday because they really wanted to play, but I said, 'You look horrible. You need to go home,' " said J. Means, Northwest's athletic director.
"Right now, with the way things are, the last thing you want is to have them here at school, spreading it around."
H1N1 vaccines coming
State officials said Wednesday that Kansas is another step closer to having the 2009 H1N1 influenza vaccine available. Kansas' first shipments of the vaccine — about 16,000 doses — should arrive next week.
Wichita public schools, like several area districts and universities, plan to administer free H1N1 vaccines to students and staff members through school nurse clinics later this month.
Parents should see permission slips coming home with their students about mid-October, Hubka said. The district also plans to post information on its Web site and notify parents of the vaccinations through its automated telephone system.
"It's going to be a few weeks before we're ready to get going," Hubka said.
Over the past month the district has announced several cases of H1N1, or swine flu, that were confirmed by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. But that agency is no longer doing mass testing of suspected H1N1 cases.
Hubka said school nurses are on the lookout for "any of those symptoms which pretty much mirror seasonal influenza." Meanwhile, they're working to prevent and control the spread of flu viruses.
"I'm getting e-mails from nurses saying, 'I'm doing more education today on hand-washing,' and that type of thing," Hubka said.
School nurses continue to evaluate sick kids and send them home based on symptoms, she said, and fever isn't the only factor.
"If they have a fever, they're going to go home," Hubka said. "If they don't have a fever but they're coughing a lot, they have body aches, they just feel horrible — they will go home, too.
"We do not want the kids in school if they're sick."
Widespread flu has some districts re-evaluating perfect attendance incentives to make sure sick kids stay home.
Many schools award certificates, medals, parties or a pass from taking final exams to students who don't miss school.
The Basehor-Linwood district in Leavenworth County is considering suspending its perfect attendance award in favor of "outstanding attendance" awards to students who miss three or fewer days due to illness. It is the district's way of trying to prevent the spread of the H1N1 virus.
"We have a lot of ambitious students who strive to receive perfect attendance, and we want to encourage those kids to stay home when sick," said David Howard, superintendent of the Basehor-Linwood district.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment agreed. Jason Eberhart-Phillips, state health officer and director of health at KDHE, hopes other school districts with similar incentive policies will follow suit.
"This flu season we want kids throughout Kansas to do the right thing, staying home when they are ill, and not being penalized for it by missing out on an award," Eberhart-Phillips said. "There is no honor in a child having perfect school attendance if such unwavering 'presenteeism' has made others sick."
Susan Arensman, spokeswoman for the Wichita district, said some high school principals are talking about changing attendance requirements for final exams.
"We've advised the principals to take it under consideration," she said, "since the big push is making sure sick kids stay home."