As the fall and winter months typically usher in flu season, this year’s rise in respiratory illnesses has prompted several school districts in Texas to take drastic measures. The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) recently unveiled a Respiratory Illness Interactive Dashboard, revealing upward trends in COVID-19, RSV, and influenza. The latest data from DSHS indicates a concerning increase in cases, leading to a spike in absenteeism among students, teachers, and staff.
In response to the escalating situation, the Olney Independent School District in Archer County announced on January 22, 2024, that it would be canceling classes to curb the spread of seasonal respiratory illnesses. This decision set a precedent, with a total of seven school districts in north Texas following suit, temporarily closing their doors to mitigate the growing health crisis.
Drastic Escalation Prompts Unplanned Closures
Dr. Joshua Smith, Superintendent of Benjamin Independent School District, shared insights into the decision-making process that led to the unexpected closure. Monitoring the respiratory illness situation on January 23, district officials observed a significant increase in absenteeism, with 18 students out, dropping attendance to 86 percent.
The situation rapidly worsened, and by January 24, the district faced a staggering 70.2 percent attendance, with 38 students absent due to respiratory illnesses. Dr. Smith, an educator with two decades of experience, expressed his astonishment, stating, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a campus or a district that was at 70 percent.”
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Defining When Schools Should Close Due to Illnesses
Stacey Wood, Director of Health Services for Wichita Falls ISD, highlighted the criteria set by DSHS for defining a confirmed influenza outbreak in a school. According to DSHS, an outbreak occurs when there are five or more cases in one day among students or staff in a single class, sports team, or after-school group. Benjamin ISD, with just over 100 students, experienced 20 new cases in a single day, surpassing the outbreak threshold.
While the DSHS definition serves as a guideline rather than a policy, Dr. Smith emphasized that the decision to close schools was based on the local impact, stating, “If I’m going to make a decision like that, it’s going to be because, you know, it’s what I feel is best for our district, our families, students, communities, and teachers.”
Swift Action and Comprehensive Sanitization Measures
To halt the spread of illnesses, Benjamin ISD made the decision to close on January 25-26, providing five consecutive days for students and staff to recover. During this period, the district’s maintenance staff executed a thorough sanitization process, disinfecting every area of the school. In collaboration with GermBlast, a specialized cleaning company, the district ensured a deep clean to minimize the risk of further infections.
Reflections on the Decision to Close
The district resumed classes on January 30, and Dr. Smith reported positive trends in attendance, stating, “We’re really [only] a couple of days into it, but it’s starting to turn in the right direction.” While acknowledging that some students are still recovering, overall attendance numbers are on the rise.
Dr. Smith reflected on the challenging decision to close the district, recognizing that hindsight will determine its effectiveness. He stated, “I don’t know if you’re ever 100 percent on those types of decisions, but, you know, when you come back and your attendance is already that much better, you do feel like you made the right call.”
Moving Forward: Focus on Prevention
With an eye on preventing future outbreaks, Dr. Smith emphasized the importance of vigilance and cooperation among students, staff, and the community. Encouraging proactive measures, he stressed the need for disseminating information to students about proper hygiene practices, including frequent handwashing, avoiding physical contact, and covering mouths when coughing.
The unexpected closures served as a wake-up call for Benjamin ISD, prompting heightened awareness and a commitment to taking precautionary measures. Dr. Smith acknowledged the unity among district personnel in prioritizing the health and well-being of students, teachers, and the community.
As Texas grapples with the surge in respiratory illnesses, the situation in Benjamin serves as a microcosm of the challenges faced by school districts across the state. The delicate balance between educational continuity and public health remains a complex and evolving concern for educators and administrators navigating these unprecedented times.