By David Hedges Publisher

Nearly 30 percent of the students were absent at one local school Tuesday as the H1N1 virus began taking its toll in county classrooms.

Spencer Middle School has been hit the hardest, as school officials reported 129 students absent Tuesday out of a total enrollment of 447. That amounts to almost 29 percent of the student body.

"We had 115 out yesterday and some more went home ill," assistant principal Paula LeMasters said.

"A lot of them are coughing or have fevers," she said. "We don't send them home unless they have fevers or are throwing up."

By comparison, the county's attendance rate for last month was around 95 percent, meaning that about 5 percent of students were absent on a given day.

At SMS, football coach Ron Bradley was worried he might not have enough players for a game tonight (Thursday) with Clay County. Bradley said he had several starters sick Tuesday. The school's volleyball team had to cancel a B-team match that night with Braxton because so many players were ill.

After Spencer Middle, Roane County High School was next highest with 139 absent Tuesday out of a total enrollment of just over 700, or nearly 20 percent of the total. School officials said that was an increase from the 106 students out of school Monday.

H1N1, also known as the swine flu, is a big reason.

"It's definitely becoming a bigger and bigger problem," school nurse Milissa Mace said. However, she said the numbers paled in comparison to a neighboring county, where 600 students were absent at one school one day last week.

"We're definitely seeing large numbers of absences, but nothing like Jackson County," according to Mace, who said many of those were attributed to parents keeping their children home out of fear.

"There's been a lot of panic in some places," she said. "But so far we've been able to avoid that."

Mace said she and her school-aged children all had confirmed cases of H1N1 last week but were able to return this week after their symptoms passed.

At Geary Elementary/Middle, 62 students were out of school Tuesday, which is more than 19 percent of the school's enrollment.

"It's picked up drastically since last week," according to school secretary Terri Reichard, who said there had been some confirmed cases of H1N1 at the school.

At Walton, 66 failed to report to school Tuesday, and eight more were sent home before noon. The total of 74 amounts to nearly 17 percent of the students.

"It's not as bad as it has been," school secretary Tammy Michael said. "We've had a lot of things going around. Some have the flu, some have strep throat and others have bronchitis, a stomach virus or the croup."

She said earlier this year some of the school's younger students had problems with hand, foot and mouth disease and chicken pox.

At Reedy, just over 16 percent of the students were absent Tuesday, according to acting principal Doris Weekley. She said 23 of the school's 143 students either did not come to school or went home early.

"It's starting to pick up," Weekley said. "That's a few more than last week."

At Spencer Elementary, 80 students were absent Thursday, just over 15 percent of the total. School secretary Martha Reed said that was above average, although she said the school had not had a single confirmed case of swine flu.

Jennifer Cox, a Roane General Hospital nurse practitioner who operates clinics at several local schools, said H1N1 is not the only problem.

Cox saw 24 patients at Walton Tuesday morning, and she said only two of those had symptoms consistent with swine flu.

"There are a lot of things going around right now, but that's typical for this time of year," she said. She said doctor's offices generally are not testing for swine flu because cultures take 48 to 72 hours for results, which only delays treatment. She said a rapid test for flu misses about 40 percent of swine flu cases.

Cox said the county had received its first shipment of swine flu vaccine and she planned to start giving it to students at Walton Thursday, once signed parental permission slips are returned. The nasal mist vaccines will be given at all schools in the coming days.

"We will keep giving it until we get everyone done, or we run out of vaccine," she said.

Cox said additional shipments of the vaccine are anticipated in the coming weeks.


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