Flu Season Brings Deaths, School Closures

Classes Out for Influenza

A state away, in Virginia, one private school is dealing with its own influenza catastrophe. Peter Bender, principal of the upper school at Walsingham Academy in Williamsburg, Va., said he and other administrators were forced to shut down the school on Friday when more than a quarter of the student body was absent Thursday with flu-like symptoms.

"We started noticing absences this past Monday -- maybe 60 or 62 students were out," Bender said. "The lower school principal told me that she had 30 out."

With each day, the number of illness-related absences grew. By Thursday, 118 out of 314 upper school pupils and 80 out of about 440 lower school pupils children were absent with symptoms consistent with either a respiratory infection or gastrointestinal illness.

Bender said that it was at that point the administrators decided to close down the school on Friday -- to the praise of the students' parents.

Bender, who has 35 years of experience working in various school systems, said he has never seen a wave of illness-induced absence of this magnitude.

He noted that state health officials have not yet determined the exact cause for the illnesses. Currently, he said, the health department is offering the families of sick children screening kits to detect norovirus -- a type of bug that causes gastrointestinal illness.

Schaffner said that it is difficult to determine the exact nature of the illness without knowing more about the individual cases. But he said that the influenza virus is a likely suspect, given the symptoms described.

"You would think that the influenza virus is the more likely cause this time of year," he said.

Schaffner added that while norovirus is generally more associated with intestinal symptoms, influenza can also bring about gastrointestinal effects such as diarrhea in younger children.

"It would be extremely unusual to have two prominent viruses in one institution simultaneously," he said. "That would be very, very odd."

Beating Flu to the Punch

In the aftermath of the infections at Walsingham Academy, workers are scrubbing down the school -- a step that Schaffner said will not likely help if an influenza bug is to blame, but which Bender said he welcomes.

"My No. 1 concern is the health of the students," he said. "This extra day is intended to give everyone a rest and the opportunity to clean the buildings."

For Willis, the week to come will be one in which he struggles to cope with his loss.

"It's like I'm waiting to wake up from a nightmare," Willis said.

Since his son's death, he has talked openly to the media about his experience. Talking about it, he hopes, will help him deal with his grief -- and alert other families to the danger of the flu.

"If it helps one family avoid going through what we're going through, then it's worth it," he said.

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