updated 12/30/2003 6:14:51 PM ET 2003-12-30T23:14:51

Optimists might say the holiday break gives the nation’s schools a chance to snap the flu cycle by allowing students to recover from the sniffles and for custodians to sanitize classrooms.

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But does it?

Family gatherings, shopping malls and airports also may be crowded with people carrying the flu and other bugs. That creates the potential for viruses to erupt anew in schools that hoped they had seen the worst of the flu.

“It offers an opportunity for them not being in school here, but where will they be over the Christmas break?” asked Phyllis Lewis, school health coordinator for the Indiana Department of Education.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not done any studies to see if there is a decline in flu cases after school holidays, said spokesman Dave Daigle.

“We hope to see a downturn,” he said, but there also is the possibility that heavy travel could generate more flu cases.

At least 45 states have reported widespread influenza cases so far this year, and at least 42 children have died from it, mostly in Western states, according to the CDC.

Health recommendations for schools
Closing individual schools has not proven effective in stopping the flu, the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., reports on its Web site.

Test your IQThe center recommends that school staffers clean commonly used surfaces such as handrails and eating surfaces and desks frequently with disinfectants or bleach solutions.

That’s what the 41,000-student Indianapolis public school system is doing over the holidays. Custodians will be wiping disinfectant on restrooms and door handles, said Pat Kiergan, head of nursing and health services.

Normally she and her staff of 15 school nurses would be bracing for outbreaks of chickenpox that family get-togethers over the holidays seem to bring. This year, they wonder how many students will return to school in January with new bugs to spread to classmates.

“When they have relatives coming from other states, they bring the Tennessee or Kentucky germs with them,” Kiergan said.

She speculated that maybe some really cold weather would help. “We haven’t had a hard freeze yet,” Kiergan said. “It does seem to do something about killing all the stuff that’s out there.”

Absentee rates higher than average
The Center for Health and Health Care in Schools says tissues should be made available in all classrooms and school buses. Students should be encouraged to cover nose and mouth while coughing or sneezing and all students should avoid sharing glasses, water bottles and utensils.

In states such as Ohio, West Virginia, Connecticut, Idaho, New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana, schools closed for one or more days before the Christmas break, with absentee rates as high as 50 percent.

In Texarkana, Ark., Emergency Management Coordinator Dave Hall said last week that some school districts in Bowie County, Texas, were reporting an average of 15-16 percent absentee rate among their students, much higher than the normal absentee rate of 4 to 6 percent this time of year.

In eastern Missouri, the Union School District began its holiday break Dec. 16, three days early, after more than 600 of its 2,900 students called in sick the day before.

“The people that have been hit with that, it seems like it’s really a long road before they’re able to get back to work or school,” said Superintendent Ve Ann Tilson.

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