There have been a lot of empty desks in Maryland classrooms lately. But blame it on fever brought on by the flu, not the pleasant kind triggered by an unseasonable burst of springlike weather.
For more than a week, the flu bug has been running rampant in area schools. Some days, schools have reported absentee rates as high as 40 percent, officials said.
School and health officials say the flu bug began making its presence felt at the end of January -- when the season's first confirmed cases of influenza also were reported to the state health department.
"We consider the flu to be widespread this year," said Dr. Timothy Cote, a state health department epidemiologist. "It's widespread throughout the schools, causing the absentee rate to rise."
However, Dr. Cote noted that flu outbreaks are to be expected this time of the year.
Local school systems require schools to report absentee rates higher than 10 percent to the central office.
William Follett, a health department spokesman for Baltimore County, said he began seeing an increase in reports last week. "The middle of last week, one school was doing 40 percent and another was doing 30 percent," he said.
"We had 120 children out of 280 out [sick] last week," said Betty HTC R. Blohm, principal of the county's Summit Park Elementary School.
In Harford County, 16 of the 43 public schools reported more than 10 percent of their students out sick Jan. 30, said Al Seymour, a spokesman. "One school had 19 percent of its students out."
Linda Chamberlin, principal of Forest Hill Elementary School in Harford, said more than 80 of the school's 416 students have been out sick this week. "We thought it had peaked last week," she said, but "it's just as bad this week. The nurse has been very busy."
Although declining, the number of Harford County schools reporting an absentee rate of more than 10 percent remains higher than usual, Mr. Seymour said.
January also was a bad month for Anne Arundel County's 121 schools, said Betsy Rice, coordinator of health issues for the school system.
"The average has been 15 or 20 schools [reporting] 10 percent to 15 percent out," Ms. Rice said, although things are "not so bad now."
In Howard County, Carol Dunlavy, the coordinator of health services, said she began to see an increase in absentee rates toward the end of January.
"Up until the week of Jan. 22, virtually no schools were reporting," Ms. Dunlavy said. "About 10 percent reported the following week, and it is up to 20 percent this week."
Other counties where schools are reporting high absentee rates due to the flu are Carroll, Calvert and Talbot, said Dr. Cote, the state epidemiologist.
In Baltimore, a school spokesman said she was not aware of any increased absentee rates due to illness. "There's no problem in the city schools," said Isabel Roberson.
The flu bug is characterized by fever, malaise, cough and muscle aches that generally lasts three days to two weeks. Health-care workers advise against giving children aspirin for flu symptoms because such treatment has been linked to Reye's syndrome, a severe pediatric disease. Instead, youngsters should be treated with acetaminophen.