Flu outbreak causes closure

With roughly 20 percent of students out each day this week and the reservoir of substitute teachers and bus drivers running dry, Gulf District Schools will close Friday.

Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton, after consulting with local health care providers, made the decision midday Wednesday during the third day of emptying classrooms.

"We have had 20 percent of our student population out every day this week,
Norton said. "It is also impacting our faculties.

"We were having a real tough time getting substitutes. This morning we going down the Wewahitchka substitute list to try and get anybody to come to Port St. Joe" and a 22-mile trip.

Norton added that bus driver ranks were a steadily growing problem.

"We were running out of substitute teachers and we were running out of bus drivers," Norton said. "It just made sense to be proactive."

The district’s official student enrollment is 1,902.

Enrollment at both Port St. Joe schools is over 500; on Wednesday each school counted more than 100 students absent.

In Wewahitchka, the percentages worked out the same with more than 60 students absent at each of the elementary and high schools.

Given the enrollment at Wewahitchka High School, the absences approached 25 percent of the student population.

Norton said the decision to close Friday, and not Thursday, evolved from two thoughts.

One, health care providers, including local pediatrician Dr. Elizabeth Curry and the Florida Department of Health in Gulf County, were emphasizing to parents of sick children not to send their child back to school until symptom-free.

The message was the same for adults.

"They are telling the sick ones, don’t come back," Norton said. "The message (for Thursday) is the healthy ones should come to school, the sick students should stay away.
"It keeps are numbers (viable). I am sure we are going to have a lot of people who will take advantage of it (Thursday)."

On Thursday evening, 4-6 p.m. local time at the respective elementary schools, the FDOH in Gulf County will set up flu vaccine clinics for school-age children.

The department will also hold clinics at the elementary schools Monday.

Consent forms were sent home with children Wednesday
Marsha Lindeman, executive director of the FDOH in Gulf County, said Tuesday that during a clinic last month more than 300 children were vaccinated, roughly a third of elementary school enrollment in the district.

She also noted that while the vaccine is not a guarantee of not coming down with flu, carried by an airborne virus, the vaccine will significantly mitigate the most serious complications.

Additionally, she emphasized that children are a high-risk population.

The three-day weekend, Norton said, will offer not only a break from the recent cycle, but also the opportunity for a deep clean of all four schools.

Norton said the district’s janitorial contracter will bringing in additional teams, from as far away as the University of West Florida, to perform a "deep and thorough scrubbing."

He said schools will be back open Monday.

In the meantime, extracurricular activities will go on as scheduled.



A previous version of this story:

Gulf County Schools will close Friday due to the current outbreak of the flu, said Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton on Wednesday.

For now the closure is only for Friday, Norton said.

"After discussing it was the health department and health care providers, we have decided to close Friday and maybe the three-day weekend will provide us some distance," Norton said.

On Wednesday, more than 100 students were out sick at both Port St. Joe schools and more than 60 were out at each Wewahitchka schools.

Faculty at all schools has been impacted.

"We are running out of substitute teachers and we are running out of bus drivers," Norton said.

Health care providers are stressing to parents not to have their child return to school until fully symptom free.

The Florida Department of Health in Gulf County will be at each elementary school Thursday, 4-6 p.m. local time, to provide flu vaccinations.

There is a limited supply, more is being ordered, and parents are encouraged to have their child immunized.

Marsha Lindeman, on Tuesday, stressed that the vaccine may not fully immunize an individual from the flu, but it will mitigate the most serious complications.

In addition, children are a very high risk population.