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City Flu Epidemic Leads to Jump in Sick Students: 'Feels Like An Infirmary'

By Mina Bloom | December 12, 2014 7:50am | Updated on December 12, 2014 12:40pm
  One kid called it the "five-day sickness," referring to the fact that his friends keep disappearing for five days while they're sick.
One kid called it the "five-day sickness," referring to the fact that his friends keep disappearing for five days while they're sick.
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DNAinfo/Sam Cholke

NEAR WEST SIDE — On Wednesday, more than a fifth of the student body at Near West Side grade school Andrew Jackson Language Academy stayed home sick.

Thanks to the flu, students have been missing class all week at Jackson, 1340 W. Harrison St., a school that serves as one of the most extreme examples of an influenza epidemic that is sweeping through public and private school classrooms across the city.

Compared to last year, Chicago Public Schools are seeing a "modest increase" in influenza so far this year, resulting in some schools seeing an increase in student absences, according to a CPS spokeswoman.

Citywide, emergency rooms visits for flulike illnesses have increased, according to a spokesman for the Chicago Department of Public Health. The agency releases weekly flu reports.

 Andrew Jackson Language Academy on the Near West Side was missing more than 20 percent of its students Wednesday, attributed to a citywide flu outbreak.
Andrew Jackson Language Academy on the Near West Side was missing more than 20 percent of its students Wednesday, attributed to a citywide flu outbreak.
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Jackson's principal, Mathew Ditto, robocalled parents Thursday afternoon, saying the school has seen an "uncharacteristic increase in the number of student absences due to flulike symptoms."

He added, "If your child is not feeling well, please keep them home and allow them to recover from their illness."

And the school's World Language Committee canceled a craft night scheduled for Friday due to the high number of illnesses.

"We're really sad to do this, but so many people have kids that are sick right now, or are sick themselves, that we feel it's best for everyone," the email read.

When Liz Gardner arrived at Jackson on Wednesday to pick up her sick daughter, she said janitors were "dealing with three other areas where students had thrown up." 

That night, Gardner, who serves as the secretary for the school's Local School Council, joined other council members at a meeting where parents were told that more than 120 of the 565 students at the school were sick. Students were told that even more kids were out Thursday.

Gardner said Ditto has been "doing all he can" to make sure that germs don't spread, adding that the school has been "diligent" about wiping down desks and sanitizing surfaces. 

"It really comes down to hand washing and keeping your kids home," said Gardner, who has three kids, all enrolled at Jackson.

But sometimes, she admits, it's difficult to predict if or when a child will get sick. 

She posed the question: "Do you send your [healthy] eighth-grader [to school] knowing that he's living with two people who are living with this bug?" 

Another school hit with the flu epidemic is Mark Sheridan Math and Science Academy in Bridgeport.

"It almost feels like an infirmary right now," school Principal John P. O'Connell said.

On Monday, 30 students called in sick compared to an average number of five to 10, he said. The school saw 20 absences on Tuesday, and 27 on Wednesday. Younger kids from kindergarten to third grade account for most of the absences, he said.

O'Connell said the school's attendance clerk went to a meeting Monday where she learned that schools across the city are getting hit with influenza, resulting in an increase in absences.

"It seems like this is an epidemic everywhere," O'Connell said. "A lot of schools are getting hit with a bug."

As a result, O'Connell is calling for more thorough cleaning at the school, requesting that classrooms be cleaned every day.

A West Town teacher has described his school as a "germ factory," according to a report by The Huffington Post.

Parent Alyson Hu, whose 13-year-old goes to Disney II Magnet School in Irving Park, said she is very supportive of the school administration, but also pointed to the fact that they are "having trouble getting the school cleaned."

 File photo.
File photo.
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In March, Chicago Public Schools entered a contract with private contractor Aramark to manage building maintenance for more than 500 schools. Since then, CPS principals across the city have complained that the new management system has not cleaned adequately.

"We are extremely confident in the effectiveness of the cleaning techniques and supplies we are using to keep schools clean," a spokeswoman for Aramark told DNAinfo Chicago Friday, adding that the flu has been impacting the entire state, not just students in Chicago Public Schools.

Victoria Benson, who has two kids enrolled at Portage Park Elementary School, said while she believes Aramark is a "horrible, bureaucratic system," she doesn't blame it for the flu outbreak that, by her estimate, has been going for the weeks.

Both of Benson's kids have been home sick with the flu, which caused her to catch the virus. She joked that she wanted to start a "Clorox group" in which parents volunteer to wipe down children's desks.

When Benson's second-grade son, Benjamin, got the flu, he said: "Oh no, I've got the five-day sickness."

That means his "friends keep disappearing for five days," Benson explained.

She added: "It must be significant enough that my son would notice."

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