NORTH SALEM– As principal of North Salem Elementary School, Brenda Coley doesn’t normally answer the phone at the front desk, but somebody has to since the secretary is out sick.
The school’s secretary hasn’t been the only one out sick. About 30 percent of students were also absent by the end of the day Wednesday.
“Flu, headaches, fever, stomach aches, nausea,” said Coley, as she described the symptoms that have been sending students to the nurse’s office since last Monday.
Just as this flu season appears to be slowing down across Indiana, it’s hitting North Salem Elementary School hard. Wednesday’s 30 percent absence rate was 10 times the school’s normal 3 percent absentee rate.
Coley said Northwest Hendricks Schools discussed the possibility of closing the elementary school for a few days, but the State Department of Education recommended staying open since staff levels were still at full strength.
“So instruction is continuing to go on and the teachers are adapting and the students are doing a great job,” Coley said.
There is no statewide, uniform threshold for triggering a school shutdown based on absentee rates. Those decisions are left to local school officials.
So, teachers and staff are urging their remaining students to wash their hands several times during the day. They’re also cleaning and disinfecting desks, chairs, door handles, pencil sharpeners and anything else children handle. The custodial staff is stepping up efforts to use bleach in bathrooms and the cafeteria.
Such an unusually high absentee rate appears to be isolated. Nearby Pittsboro reported normal attendance rates. Indianapolis Public Schools, Muncie Schools and several other large districts told Fox59 they were seeing normal numbers this week. The sickness seems to be persistent at New Salem this season.
Jennifer Mercado walked into the school to pick up her son Jordan Wednesday afternoon.
“I was at work and they called me, said my kid was sick so I’m just coming to get him,” Mercado said.
Mercado told Fox59 her son is normally healthy, but this is the third time he’s been sick this season.
Officials at North Salem said students and staff are doing a good job of working through the rough season, but there is concern that the school could lose its four star status because of the high absentee rates.
And I-STEP testing is only about three weeks away.
“There is a concern about the students being healthy and being able to properly take the test,” Coley said. “And being in good mental capacity to be able to take the test as well.”