Outbreak of flu-like illness closes school


School at Box Elder was canceled today and Wednesday as a result of an outbreak of flu-like symptoms among more than 100 students and half of the teachers.

Box Elder Schools Superintendent Bob Heppner said Monday that problems started last Friday, when 109 students stayed home from school complaining of a range of symptoms, including severe coughing, headache and nausea. Box Elder Schools has 349 students in grades K-12.

Heppner assumed things would be back to normal this week, but they weren't.

"We thought, 'It'll blow over and we'll be back to normal on Monday,'" he said. "But we're not."

On Monday, the same number of students were absent, and parents came to get others during the day. Heppner went from classroom to classroom and took an informal survey, and found that about half the students who were at school were sick. About half the teachers had either called in sick or were sick but attended school anyway because they knew a substitute teacher wouldn't be available, Heppner said.

"People walking around here today look like zombies," he said. "They came because they knew there was nobody to cover for them."

Heppner decided to begin Thanksgiving break today instead of Thursday.

"I was thinking, 'Well, with that many kids gone and no teachers, there's not much sense in having school," Heppner said.

Heppner said the chief medical officer of the Rocky Boy Clinic told him today it is too early to tell whether the sickness is an outbreak of influenza because the tests for the virus take four days.

The students will make up the two days on Feb. 17 - Presidents Day - and a day in March, Heppner said.

The outbreak of sickness came after a monthly water test of Box Elder Schools revealed the presence of coliform bacteria in the water supply, Heppner said. On Wednesday the school followed an order from the state Department of Environmental Quality in Helena, and shut off its water and brought in bottled water. Heppner said the lines were chlorinated over the weekend, and the water has been testing again. Results are expected by the end of this week.

Heppner said the chief medical officer at the clinic told him the water was not responsible for the outbreak of illness at the school.


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