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UPDATE: Elizabethton, Washington Co. schools to close because of flu

John Thompson and Jessica Fuller • Updated Feb 15, 2017 at 10:15 PM

You could call them under-the-weather-related closings.

Instead of snowfall, absences from flu and other seasonal illnesses prompted Elizabethton and Washington County school officials Wednesday to shut down both systems’ schools for the remainder of the week.

All schools will be closed Thursday and Friday.

“We have been struggling with it for a few weeks,” Corey Gardenhour, Elizabethton director of schools, said after the decision to close the schools was made Wednesday. “It is in the best interest of everyone that we close for a few days.”

Schools in other area districts and other parts of the state had closed earlier for illnesses, but both Johnson City and Washington County earlier said attendance figures had not merited closing.

That changed for Washington County Wednesday: school officials sent text messages to students and family members alerting them of the closings.

Washington County Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton said it wasn’t a decision she made lightly – the normal 90 to 93 percent attendance rate for the county dropped to 86 percent on Wednesday as students and faculty missed school due to illness. Washington County Schools will be closed Thursday and Friday for sick students, teachers and faculty to get rest.

“If you're sick we want you to take advantage of these five days and get some bed rest,” Halliburton said. “I hope that our students who have been sick won't treat this like a vacation. Even with medication, (medical professionals) say you need that bed rest.”

Gardenhour said Elizabethton students and teachers will be out of school Thursday and Friday. Students are already scheduled to be out for a parent-teacher conference day on Monday. Teachers will return then and the conferences will go on as scheduled.

While they are out, the maintenance staff will clean and sanitize school buildings and furniture.

The school system will return to a normal schedule Tuesday, with both students and teachers back in school.

Gardenhour said his staff has seen school attendance rates falling during the outbreak. He said Elizabethton High School has reached as much as 20 percent of students being out. He said 70 students have been out at one time at T.A. Dugger Jr. High School, which is more than 10 percent.

Even Wednesday afternoon, schools were dismissing students who had just come down with symptoms.

He said the epidemic has also impacted the school staff, both in terms of illness to staff members and taking time off to care for their sick children.

Gardenhour said this is the first time the schools have closed for illness in the 10 years he has worked in the school system.

Halliburton said staff in the Washington County Central Office couldn’t recall a time in the past 20 years that the district has closed due to illness.

In Johnson County, bad weather kept schools closed Wednesday, but illness will keep the doors shut Thursday and Friday. 

Johnson County superintendent Mischelle Simcox said schools there will also be closed Thursday and Friday while buildings are cleaned and disinfected over the long weekend. While Johnson County schools were out Wednesday for bad weather, she said district-wide attendance had dropped to 90 percent from its usual 95 to 96 percent, and some individual schools had attendance as low as 76 percent this week.

A shortage of staff members who are out sick also prompted the decision, as some schools were having trouble staffing classrooms and finding substitutes.

Johnson City Schools stayed the course to remain open. Communications Director Debra Bentley said attendance was around 90 percent Wednesday.

The Carter County School System, too, planned to remain in session. Attendance rates in the system have remained at 92 percent or above. Maintenance staff have been performing additional cleaning and sanitation procedures during the outbreak.

The Kingsport Times-News reported Wednesday evening that Kingsport City Schools would also be closed Thursday and Friday.

Both Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health Systems have restricted visitation because of the number of flu cases in the region and admissions for illness.

Keep visiting JohnsonCityPress.com for more on this developing story.

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Earlier report posted at 1:28 p.m.

ELIZABETHTON — Absences from flu and other seasonal illnesses prompted Elizabethton City Schools officials Wednesday to shut down the system’s schools for the remainder of the week.

All schools will be closed Thursday and Friday.

Schools in other area districts and other parts of the state had closed earlier for illnesses, but both Johnson City and Washington County have said attendance figures had not merited closing.

Keep visiting JohnsonCityPress.com for more on this developing story.