Note — This post originally appeared back in 2014 on a blog for a company I worked for. The company was acquired and the blog taken down, but with school back in session and flu season approaching, I thought the information might be useful.
Those of us who have been in K-12 education long enough can tell you that illness is one of the leading causes of absenteeism in our schools, but how does it compare to other causes? In working with customers over the past couple months, we’ve had the rare opportunity to view longitudinal attendance data spanning multiple years. Typically this is about four or five years of data and depending on the granularity of their attendance codification system, we can see highly seasonal trends with students missing school due to illness. So far, it appears that trends in schools are highly predictable and generally match the analysis provided by the CDC, but here’s what’s interesting: Almost without exception, illness appears to make up not just the majority, but the vast majority of absences.
Here’s an example from one customer we worked with. In this chart we see seasonal trends with illness for the past three-and-a-half years for 38 schools combined. This is similar most data with trends spiking typically in late January and early February:
We ran the report a second time for the same three-and-a-half-years, but included all attendance codes that meant the student was absent from school for any reason. In this chart, we unpack nearly half-a-million attendance events and break them down by attendance code. Medically verified and parent verified illness combined to make up 55% of the overall absences. Coming in second at 20% were unexcused absences followed by unverified absences coming in at 5%.
Our observations seem to have support from the research community. One study from Texas by the E3 Alliance and Children’s Optimal Health found that nearly half of absences were due to acute illness. A similar study in Seattle conducted during flu season showed that for every 100 children there were 63 missed school days. In October 2009, the flu nearly doubled the absentee rate in the D.C. area leaving some campuses with as many as one-fifth of students out sick.
That’s a lot of school to miss. Thanks to recent efforts from groups like Attendance Works, America’s Promise and Everyone Graduates, we know that missing school for any reason can lead to chronic absenteeism and significantly hinder a student’s prospects for academic attainment. These organizations have done amazing work raising awareness around the issue of chronic absenteeism which goes beyond the myopic focus on truancy and daily attendance counts which often mask issues with chronic absenteeism.
But what can be done about illness? Perhaps flu season is an unavoidable reality for K-12 schools and we just have to accept that it’s going to take out a substantial portion of a student population for the better part of two weeks every year. In nearly every school and district we work with, we see a similar pattern with a significant spike in absenteeism due to illness. According to Families Fighting Flu, “Every year in the U.S., children miss more than 38 million days of school due to the flu.” Kinda makes me think that instead of a summer break, we might as well take six weeks off at the start of each new year to keep vigil over our children and try out new veggie soup recipes.
Short of completely upending the traditional school calendar (an idea with merit BTW) there’s a lot schools can do to reduce absenteeism due to illness:
- Awareness Campaign — Make staying healthy a school and community-wide priority with an aggressive awareness campaign. Families Fighting Flu has everything you need with their “Stay in the Game” campaign toolkit. They’ve also teamed up with Voices for Vaccines and Nurses Who Vaccinate to create the “Kick the Flu Out Of School” toolkit. Given historical trends in data, early January appears to be the best time to kick off this type of campaign.
- Track School and District Illness Data — Schools should be tracking illness by using attendance codes that differentiate between doctor appointments, hospitalization and illness. Administrators should set a goal to beat last year’s illness absentee rate and share data within the school community. Two data reporting platforms worth checking out are Schoolzilla and BrightBytes.
- Upgrade Air Circulation and Filtration Systems — This past June the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory published results from a comprehensive study which showed that if California schools upgraded their HVAC systems to meet the state’s minimum requirements “…they would reduce illness absence by 3.4 percent and increase overall State funding to schools by $33 million.
- Open Windows or Classroom Doors — As weather permits, this is something we can do immediately to increase air circulation and reduce the spread of airborne germs.
- Wash Your Hands! — Mother knows best of course. You’ve got to scrub ’em good before you crunch your lunch! Make sure students have enough time to wash before lunch and when returning after recess. Take time to teach healthy habits, including how to properly sneeze or cough.
- Use Hand Sanitizers — A study published in the American Journal of Infection Control way back in 2000 found that the use of hand sanitizers in classrooms can reduce absenteeism due to infectious illness by almost 20%. Caveat: The sanitizer must be at least 60% alcohol-based, so read labels carefully, ask parents to help stock up and strategically place a bottles throughout each classroom.
- Host Onsite Flu Vaccinations — According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “The single best way to protect against seasonal flu and its potential severe complications is for children to get a seasonal influenza vaccine each year.” The CDC provides planning materials and templates as well as extensive resources to help school planners prepare for School-located Vaccination (SLV).
- Stay Home If Sick — Of course, if a child does become sick, the best way to avoid the spread of illness is to keep the child at home. Schools should review attendance policies to make sure they are supportive of families with sick children. In fact, the CDC goes so far as to recommend that schools avoid the use of perfect attendance awards.
So while illness might be an unavoidable fact of life for increasingly crowded classrooms, there is a lot we can do to lessen the impact and keep more kids in school. It all starts with a determined mindset of educators to raise a call to action, get kids immunized and fight the spread of cooties within our schools. With more awareness and activism, we can make a lasting change that helps keep our kids healthy and in the classroom.