Georgia schools prepare for viral outbreaks

Schools in Georgia are bracing for outbreaks of influenza and norovirus that have caused schools to close here and across the country.

Schools in nine states cancelled class days after outbreaks of norovirus this school year. In one Chicago area high school, nearly a third of the school’s 2,500 students missed class after catching the virus, which causes nausea, stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea.

Just this week, schools in six states cancelled classes due to influenza outbreaks, including almost a dozen counties in Tennessee.

Walker County Schools in North Georgia cancelled classes Feb. 9 and 10 after outbreaks of influenza, norovirus and strep throat. On Wednesday, more than 1,000 students called in sick and about 350 checked out early. School Superintendent Damon Raines said staff illnesses were a bigger factor in deciding to close schools. The district had 33 bus drivers and 80 teachers too ill to work.

"It's a difficult decision anytime you have to close schools, but we just felt like that was the safest thing to do for our students," said Raines. Walker County officials said in a Facebook post that they are looking to the local Health Department for guidance.

Influenza is currently widespread in Georgia. So far this season, 332 people in metro Atlanta have been hospitalized with the flu, and two Georgians have died from the virus, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. Georgia also reported an outbreak of norovirus to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

Nationally, 40 states have widespread influenza and 33 states have at least one outbreak of norovirus, the CDC reports. Wisconsin leads the nation in norovirus outbreaks with 50.

Dade and Catoosa County Schools, which border Walker County and some of the infected counties in Tennessee, are monitoring the situation closely, but more than 90 percent of students in both districts were in class this week.

Catoosa disinfects its classes and buses more frequently every winter during cold and flu season, and specific classrooms are disinfected again if a student misses two consecutive days of class or is sent home with flu-like symptoms, said Communications Specialist Marissa Brower.

Whitfield County schools have seen an uptick in absences for staff and students but not to the extent that Walker experienced, said Whitfield Superintendent Judy Gilbreath. The district is in close contact with the county health department and is monitoring advice from the CDC, neither of which has recommended it close schools.

The flu and norovirus are highly contagious viruses. To prevent their spread, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends washing your hands with soap and water after using the bathroom and before handling food, disinfecting surfaces and not sharing food, drinks or utensils.

People infected with norovirus are contagious from when symptoms appear until a few days after symptoms stop. Those with the flu are contagious from the day before symptoms appear until a week after symptoms stop.