News Explainer: How Do They Decide to Cancel School For Illnesses?

Feb 7, 2017

Credit via Flickr/Creative Commons

Since mid-January, close to a dozen East Tennessee school districts have called off classes on account of illnesses, particularly the flu, respiratory bugs and stomach viruses. While most parents and students are familiar with "weather days" that prompt school closures, we wanted to know more about how decisions are made when illness, not snow, is an interruption to daily routines.

Officials with four local school systems - Knox, Anderson, Blount and Sevier - all agree there are red flag indicators that help administrators track the effects of a contagious sickness. Number one is class attendance, which typically drops as students fall ill.

"Our typical absentee rate is four or five percent," Greg Deal, Anderson County Assistant Director of Schools, said. But early last week, officials noticed that rate more than doubled, to around twelve percent. That, Deal said, was a clear sign that flu-like symptoms were keeping students at home. The decision was made to close schools for two days.

The second factor is teacher absence. When local principals start calling the head office to report difficulty finding substitute teachers, Deal said, administrators know there's a problem. Dr. Debra Cline, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction in Sevier County, said she also watches for a hit on support staff - bus drivers, cafeteria workers and others - that signal an illness is spreading through the community.

"On Monday, we saw an increase in student and staff absences, as well as substitute teachers," Knox County Schools spokeswoman Carly Harrington told us. "Principals around the district also reported a high number of sick students leaving school early on Monday. All of these factors were considered when the decision was made to close school."

There is no statewide policy that governs when a sick day can be called. It's left up to local systems, though they often confer with and notify state officials in Nashville.

Most East Tennessee school districts have weather days (up to 13) built into the yearly schedule, according to Sara Gast of the Tennessee Department of Education. Once those days run out, cancellations on account of weather can tack additional days onto the end of the school calendar to make up lost time. But sick days are treated differently in different parts of the state. For instance, Anderson County's sick days are not drawn from the pool of weather days, and so must be made up at the end of the term. But in Blount and Knox counties, sick days are treated the same as weather days and come out of the same pool.

While schools are closed, custodial workers typically clean with a mild disinfectant, in hopes of reducing the chances of a relapse when doors re-open. In Anderson County, where schools were shuttered for two days last week, Greg Deal told us school officials will continue to keep a close eye on student and teacher attendance for any signs of a resurgence.