116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Seven schools in Linn County have reported more than 10 percent of students absent due to illness since Dec. 1, which public health officials say is much higher than previous years.
Since August, 14 schools in Linn County have reported more than 10 percent of students absent due to illness. Ten of those schools have been elementary and middle schools in the Cedar Rapids Community School District, said Sandy Byard, health services coordinator for the district. No Cedar Rapids high school had reached more than 10 percent of students absent due to illness as of Thursday.
“I’ve been doing this for 12 years, and I haven’t seen this many schools reporting so early in the year,” said Heather Meador, Linn County Public Health clinical branch supervisor. “Some schools may not be at that 10 percent yet, but they might be awfully close.”
When a school has more than 10 percent of students absent due to illness, health office staff are strongly encouraged to report that information to their county health department and the Iowa Department of Public Health. Schools are reporting a large number of students out sick with influenza, COVID-19, respiratory syncytial virus infection (RSV), strep throat and other illnesses, Meador said.
“We need healthy kids to be productive learners,” Meador said. “We need healthy teachers to be able to educate our students … If you’re sick, you need to stay home.”
Across the state, 39 schools reported more than 10 percent of students absent due to illness as of Nov. 26, the last available data from the Iowa Department of Public Health. This is an increase from 17 schools reporting more than 10 percent of students absent at about the same time a year ago.
Cedar Rapids school board member Dexter Merschbrock said “the school board has dropped the ball.”
Once schools reach the rate of 10 percent of students absent due to illness, it’s too late to curb the spread of illness, he said. The district should do more to encourage mask use, hold vaccine clinics at schools before the winter season and think twice about holding “nonessential events” when there is documented spread of illness in the community, he said.
“The time to prepare for these issues was six months ago. Instead, it has been more than a year since (the school board has) considered any new information on public health measures related to respiratory illness spread in schools,” Merschbrock said.
“Policymakers have to look closely at current practice and be willing to make changes where necessary to keep students, staff and their families safe and healthy,” he continued. “We also have a responsibility to the community, where there are still many people vulnerable to COVID-19 and other illnesses that spread through schools.”
In Cedar Rapids schools, custodial departments are performing increased cleaning and disinfection in affected schools. School nurses also provide students and staff education regarding prevention measures, including:
- Covering your cough and sneeze with a tissue or elbow,
- Frequent hand-washing,
- Staying home when you are sick,
- And getting vaccinated to help protect against influenza and COVID-19.
Byard said Cedar Rapids schools would base any decisions to mitigate the spread of illnesses on Linn County Public Health recommendation.
Linn County Public Health is not currently recommending schools add mitigation measures like suspending large group activities or band or choir activities where respiratory viruses can more easily spread, Meador said. However, Meador did suggest people consider wearing masks again in public.
Vaccinations, testing can slow spread
In Johnson County, three schools have reported more than 10 percent of students absent due to illness in the last week, said Sam Jarvis, Johnson County Public Health community health manager.
The Iowa City Community School District has had two schools this year reporting more than 10 percent of students absent due to illness, spokeswoman Kristin Pedersen said in an email to The Gazette Thursday.
The College Community School District in Cedar Rapids has not had any schools reach more than 10 percent of students absent due to illness as of Thursday, said Mary Beth Neal, supervisor of health services.
Schools rely on parents to do their part by keeping sick kids home until they have been symptom free for 24 hours without medication, Neal said.
More people need to get vaccinated for influenza and COVID-19, including booster shots, to “help keep them as healthy as possible,” Meador said. “Everyone needs to do their part,” she said.
Meador also said emergency rooms are seeing a surge of people coming in to get tested for COVID-19 or influenza. “That might not be the most appropriate use of the ER,” she said. Unless someone is having issues breathing, they should call their health care provider if they’re not feeling well.
Free COVID-19 testing kits are still available through in Iowa through Test Iowa and can be requested by visiting testiowa.com or calling 1-833-286-8378.
Free test kits also can be picked up in the lobby of Linn County Public Health, 1020 6th St SE, Cedar Rapids. Other at-home test pick up sites can be found at testiowa.com.
Comments: (319) 398-8411; firstname.lastname@example.org