School officials are on alert this week after 40 children were sent home sick from a Billings middle school on Monday and 130 students stayed home sick on Tuesday.
The absentee rate at Riverside Middle School climbed to 26 percent Tuesday, up from a normal rate of about 5 percent, said School District 2 Superin-tendent Jack Copps.
Other SD2 schools are reporting 7 to 8 percent of their students out sick, Copps said.
"We're watching the numbers closely," he said. "If we get close to an absentee rate of 40 percent, I think we'll consider closing the school."
Public schools in Anaconda are closed this week after more than 25 percent of students called in sick last week. Great Falls has also seen an uptick in the number of sick students.
It isn't clear what is making children ill. About half of the Riverside students who were sent home on Monday had fe-vers, which can be a sign of influenza.
It is possible some children have contracted the novel H1N1 flu strain, but that isn't known.
"At this point, nobody is really testing for H1N1 except in people who are hospitalized," said John Felton, assistant health officer for Yellowstone County. "There's not a lot of benefit to doing it."
Testing is expensive, and confirming that an individual had the H1N1 strain of flu would not change recommendations for treatment, Felton said.
There isn't much that can be done for someone who has the virus except to keep them away from other people.
Felton's agency, RiverStone Health, began working with SD2 last spring to educate teachers and students about influenza.
RiverStone has also worked with county schools, where absenteeism is up slightly.
"The schools are doing ex-actly what they're supposed to be doing," Felton said.
The health agency and SD2 are keeping close tabs on the situation at Riverside, officials said. Public school students are out of school around the state on Thursday and Friday while teachers attend a conference, and the four-day weekend might slow or stop the spread of illness.
Meanwhile, officials have not recommended that healthy children stay home from school.
"This a parent's call," Copps said. "If parents feel really uncomfortable there, they can keep their child home and we understand that. We aren't advising that at this point, but we understand."http://billingsgazette.com/news/local/a ... 03286.html