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Cause of East Grand Forks high school’s mass illness unclear, health official says

School district officials closed the high school for three days last month.

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It’s unclear, exactly, why about a third of East Grand Forks Senior High School’s student body stayed home sick over a pair of days last month, according to a Polk County public health official.

On Monday, Dec. 13, 152 of the school’s 560 or so students stayed home with a reported illness, according to East Grand Forks Public Schools data, and 191 students did the same the next day. Those figures are higher than normal, Superintendent Mike Kolness said at the time.

Sarah Reese, the head of Polk County Public Health, reviewed the school district’s absence data as well as weekly flu and respiratory illness reports produced by the Minnesota Department of Health. She said she couldn’t say definitively what caused the mass absences because the district data doesn’t specify what type of illness a student stayed home for. Beyond that, not every school or other facility reports flu cases to the state, and not everyone who gets sick gets tested or reports their illness.

“It is influenza season, COVID is still circulating, and this is the time of year that other respiratory illnesses are circulating,” she told the Herald on Thursday. “So my hypothesis would be that there’s a variety of different respiratory illnesses that are circulating and people were doing what we’ve asked them to do, which is stay home if they’re sick. And it just so happens that it was a bit of an uptick that week.”

Eastside school officials closed the high school to in-person learning from Wednesday, Dec. 15, through Monday, Dec. 20. Absences among high school students due to reported illness fell sharply from that point onward, to about 30-50 each day.

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The state health department recorded 24 outbreaks of influenza-like illness in schools during the week ending Dec. 18 and 87 up to that point. That’s more than it reported at the same time in three of the last four years, but much lower than the high water mark of 170 school outbreaks at about this same time in the 2018-2019 school year.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

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