Faculty notes dramatic increase in student absences; swine flu suspected

Palo Alto High School teachers and attendance office staff have noted a dramatic increase in absences due to illness over the past several days. Meanwhile, the Palo Alto Unified School District health office, taking instructions from the Santa Clara County Department of Public Health, has intensified disease prevention and control measures at schools.

“We had 200 excused absences yesterday [Tuesday],” said Anne Jensen, who is currently substituting as attendance director. This represents a 300 percent increase, according to Jensen.

Of those 200 excused absences, parents cited at least 136 as being illness-related, Jensen said. Usually, there are only about total 50 excused absences, and only some of these are illness related, according to Jensen.

English teacher Julia Taylor says that the increase in absences is high enough that it has had a noticeable adverse effect on student learning.

“The absences have been a problem because there’s lots of emailing about how to keep up with the work,” Taylor said. “If I create a document on the computer, I can send them the link, but if I have multiple documents it’s a much bigger hassle.”

When the number of students absent from Taylor’s class struck her as unusual, she decided to count them.

“I had 20 absences in total, but I’m a TA [teacher advisor] so I only teach four classes,” Taylor said. “I teach all honors classes so having 20 kids out is highly unusual.”

Physical education teacher Kay Gibson also had to change policies to accommodate sick students.

“I think it [swine flu] is to be taken seriously, so I’ve been flexible with make-ups and taking it easy because after five days they’re [sick students] still not feeling well,” Gibson said.

Student absences do not only cause students to fall behind, but they create a substantial burden on their teachers.

“I held a test on Monday and a lot of people were absent for many reasons, but a lot of people were saying it was the swine,” said history teacher Adam Yonkers.

Yonkers said that the increase in absences has forced him to re-teach some of the material.

“What that means is a lot of interruption in terms of kids coming in and needing things, making copies and taking tests,” Yonkers said. “As a teacher there were a lot emails from parents. What that means is that you have to stop what you’re doing and summarize entire days or weeks.”

Meanwhile, the District Health Office is carefully adhering to disease control guidelines.

“If we have more than 20 percent of students absent in one grade, we are required to report it to the county [Department of Public Health],” Lenoir said.

According to Lenoir, the district does not need to issue a notice to the parents of all students who the district believes were directly exposed to swine flu, with one exception.

“Parents of students who are chronically ill must be notified if 20 or more percent of students in any of their classes are out due to illness,” District nurse Linda Lenoir said.

Lenoir urged students to stay home if they were sick, but acknowledged that this was difficult for high school students.

“We are asking parents to have responsibility for keeping their kids home if they are sick,” Lenoir said. “Of course, students are very concerned about falling behind.”

Gibson echoed Lenoir’s sentiments.

“I think the biggest thing is that students need to know that it’s okay to stay home if they are sick,” Gibson said. “No one expects you to be miserable at school.”