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Mass absences likely due to virus

Almost half of Marengo students were sick Friday, but officials reported only seven absences Monday

April 20, 2011
Marengo Elementary School had several students absent Friday and sent more home during the day as school officials investigated the cause of an illness that caused vomiting.

About 70 students out of 173 were affected by the illness, and school officials acted immediately to get a handle on the cause and determine what should be done in order to make the building safe for students by Monday morning.

"The principal called the school nurse about the illnesses," Crawford County School Corp. Superintendent Dr. Mark Eastridge said Monday morning. "And the nurse contacted state officials about it. We have disinfected the whole building and put new filters in the air filtration system as a precaution, but, today, we only have seven students absent."

The incident began Friday when several students complained of vomiting and upset stomachs.

"We started the day with 46 students absent," Donna Huff, the school nurse, said. "Then, we had to send some students home. Some had been vomiting and some had an upset stomach. And we still don't know exactly what it was."

Officials from the Crawford County Health Department and the state converged on the school almost immediately and looked at every possibility, including the kitchen. But food-related illnesses usually cause diarrhea, and that wasn't the case at Marengo Elementary.

"The health department had inspected the school just a couple of weeks ago, and everything was fine," Huff said. "That's why we, and the state, are leaning towards a virus. There was one student who said she was sick at 2 a.m. on Friday morning, but by 7 a.m., she was fine. So, we believe it's probably a short-lived virus.

"We had about 70 students out on Friday, including those who were absent and those who were sent home, but, today (Monday), there are only seven students absent."

On Thursday, the day before the incident, there were only four students absent.

"Usually, there's a buildup to something like this," Huff said. "A few will get sick and then a few more. But, this was just 'wham' on this one. It hit us all at once."

The phone-notification system was used to contact parents Friday afternoon, and the school sent a notice home to parents, as well. The notice stated, "We have been in contact with the Indiana Dept. of Health and they have inspected our building. After review of our facilities, they feel that it is a virus. They have informed us that the effects from this virus include vomiting and are short-term in length. They have advised us to inform you that you should monitor your child for dehydration and if the problem continues to contact your health care provider."

The notice went on to state that the school is taking precautionary steps, including "bringing in a large number of custodians to clean and sanitize the entire building and we are also cleaning and changing the filtration system within the building."

"We're really lucky this all happened on a Friday," Huff said. "That gave us more time to work on it before the students came back to school on Monday. And I hope this isn't something that is spreading countywide."

By Indiana law, absentee rates of 20 percent or greater must be reported to the local health department. The local health department and/or the Indiana State Department of Health staff will investigate each case of reportable illness. They will assist school staff with implementing exclusion requirements and control measures. School nurses are instrumental in monitoring disease activity in the community and school environment.

"We're going to continue monitoring this," Huff said. "And we'll continue cleaning. Parents should be sure that children practice good hygiene and wash their hands often."

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