In the peak of the flu season in February, high absenteeism rates closed several Southeast Tennessee schools but most in Northwest Georgia stayed open, area educators said.
The two states have different ways of handling widespread sickness and deciding when to call off classes. Several Georgia school officials said they let local health department officials make the decision. In Tennessee, it’s up to principals or district superintendents, who consider factors such as the impact of absences on their annual attendance rates.
Bill Henry, principal of Richard Hardy School in South Pittsburg, Tenn., last week closed the school for three days because of illness. He said it would help if state or regional health services could step in when there’s an epidemic and shut down schools to break the infection cycle.
Tennessee Department of Health spokeswoman Shelley Walker said local departments don’t have authority to close schools for routine illnesses.
Tennessee’s seven regional health offices mainly administer the 89 rural local health offices, she said. Metro areas fund their own health departments.
If the state were involved in a pandemic flu or other widespread disease, the governor and department heads could close schools or other public venues, Ms. Walker said.
Marion County Schools Director Mark Griffith said he is against ceding decision-making authority to state or local health officials.
“I think they can help,” Mr. Griffith said. “But they would not have the actual information that we have access to, such as our daily attendance rates.”
Eric Beavers, spokesman for Whitfield County, Ga., schools, said the district has not closed for sickness so far this year. When flu or other illness strikes, he said, “we go with the advice of the health department.”
“We are not health experts; we look to them for guidance if there is an outbreak some where,” Mr. Beavers said.
Georgia health departments act as consultants, said Logan Boss, public information officer for Northwest Georgia Public Health, which oversees 10 county health departments.
“It’s usually a joint decision,” Mr. Boss said. “Technically, the local county health department does not have the authority to close a school system. That decision ultimately rests with superintendent.”
Mr. Boss said officials have discussed how much authority health departments should have to close schools or other public venues such as churches or movie theaters during a widespread outbreak.
“We’ve been looking at this recently in light of our pandemic planning,” Mr. Boss said. “And we’ve been asking this question for several years, but there is still no definitive black and white decision.”
Dade County, Ga., schools superintendent Patty Priest said Georgia schools are reluctant to close because they must make up the days in their calendar.
“Tennessee is quicker to close because they can stockpile days,” Ms. Priest said. “They can stockpile up to 13 extra days and we have three extra days in our calendar. If we miss any more than that, we have to make them up.”