Kristi Haunfelder, Staff Writer
March 01, 2005

Merton School District – About 25 percent of the desks were empty at Merton Primary School late last week, no thanks to a rampant stomach virus.
On Feb. 23 and 24, more than 120 of the 465 students at the primary school spent at least part of the day at home because of norovirus.

Described as “Norwalk-like” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noroviruses cause vomiting and diarrhea and are commonly, although erroneously, referred to as stomach flu.

“Yesterday, we started with 65 (students who called in sick), and then we were sending them home,” said Mark Flynn, superintendent at Merton School District.

“We’re only experiencing a problem at the primary school,” Flynn said.

While the number of absences at the intermediate school was at the average level for this time of year, 85 students were absent from the primary school Friday.

“We have 20 kids out on a normal day,” Flynn said.

“I’ve never seen it this bad,” said Flynn, who has been with the district for eight years.

On the advice of epidemi?ologists at the Waukesha County Department of Health and Human Services, the school alerted parents of the norovirus outbreak by letter.

Parents were told that if their children complained of or appeared to have “flu-like” symptoms, to keep the children home. Parents were also told that if their children were sent home, to keep the children home the next day.

According to Flynn, the health department does not recommend closing school for that type of illness, and similar cases are being seen in schools in Waukesha County and Milwaukee County.

“I talked to some of the other Arrowhead area schools,” Flynn said. As of Feb. 24, he had not heard of any other schools in the area with the norovirus taking so many students out of school.

Since the illness lasts between 24 and 36 hours, the school expected that if sick children were kept home, the virus would have run its course by Monday.

Some parents are keeping their children home in an effort to try to avoid contracting the virus, Flynn said. He estimated that fewer than 10 percent of families were taking that course of action.

“I understand that type of rationale. We haven’t promoted it, but we haven’t discouraged it,” Flynn said.

As a preventive measure, also on the advice of the Department of Health and Human Services, the school has been using a 10-percent bleach solution to wipe down hard surfaces such as tabletops, desks, windows, toilet seats and sinks.

“In addition, we’re really stressing with the kids the cleaning of hands,” Flynn said.

Many fewer students went home sick Friday, Flynn said, comparing that with the day before, when, at times, 14 students were in the health room.

Besides the students, school staff members have had the virus, with more than a dozen staff members out of school Feb. 24.

While Flynn didn’t know the exact number out Friday, he knew the number of staff members out for the day was lower than the day before and that adult attendance at the school was pretty much back to normal.