MANSFIELD, OH — Thousands of students in Richland County were told to stay home Monday as school districts try to battle a rising number of flu cases hitting students.
On Monday, Mansfield City Schools became the latest to close amid what administrators called "a tide of high absenteeism due to colds and flu-like symptoms."
"We're seeing like a 10% absentee rate in schools which is a big concern for them," said Reed Richmond, a heath educator with Richland Public Health.
Mansfield's eight school buildings were closed so the district could disinfect schools and buses in an effort to keep students healthy.
It comes as the number of people hospitalized because of the flu went from nine in December to 20 cases in January according to the health department.
Health officials say unlike other flu seasons, this year there has been an early spike in the number of Influenza B cases. That strain of the virus, they say, can hit kids harder than adults.
"Kids go to school, they're coughing into their hand, they're walking into the bus, grabbing the handrails, the next kid who gets on the bus, even if he's healthy, now he has a really good possibility of catching the flu," said Richmond.
He said that's why it's important to do simple things like practice good hand-washing, and disinfect things like light switches and door knobs.
Health officials said it's also important for people to stay home if they're sick.
"We definitely understand parents have jobs," said Emily Leedy, an epidemiologist. "They can't just leave little kids at home by themselves and if parents don't have anyone else to watch them or can't take off work, that's really a concern, and unfortunately that's the only thing that will really contain the spread is just stay home when you're sick."
Health officials say it's too soon to know if this will be a particularly bad flu season, but warn with so many people getting sick so soon, it's not a problem schools will be able to disinfect their way out of.
"What the school systems are doing, it's a great preventative right now, because you're getting these surfaces clean," said Richmond. "But as soon as kids get in there that are still ill, they're going to continue to spread that on."
Health officials say flu season typically runs through March. Because of that, they're urging people who haven't gotten a flu shot to get vaccinated. They say even if you have the vaccine, even if you still get sick, the symptoms likely won't be as bad and won't last as long.
Mansfield school officials have not said whether buildings will reopen to students Tuesday.