Before COVID-19, flu outbreak rattled Hudson elementary school

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By Dakota Antelman, Contributing Writer

Hudson – Roughly half of all students got sick. Warnings went home. And custodians spent days and nights watching decontamination mist fill halls and classrooms, settling on doorknobs and tabletops, crayon drawings and marker-stained whiteboards.

Now, though, the flu outbreak that suddenly struck Hudson’s Mulready Elementary School in January represents just a preview of the very near future. COVID-19, after all, hit not two months later.

“We were definitely figuring it out as we went along,” Assistant Superintendent Kathy Provost said of the flu situation.

It started late in the week of Jan. 6. Student illnesses spiked slightly and parents called out a few more children than the average of 11 per day.

Then, Monday, Jan. 13, the situation compounded. Ninety children stayed home. On Tuesday, the number passed 100. A day later, the crisis peaked, holding 123 students, or 47 percent of the student body at home.

“I had never seen anything like it,” Provost said.

Then the coronavirus came.

COVID-19 had infected close to 9,000 people in Middlesex County, killing roughly 150 across the state as of April 3.

Social distancing guidelines and shutdown orders from Gov. Charlie Baker have slowed public life and left many feeling isolated.

Back at the Hudson Public Schools headquarters, a skeleton crew of administrators remain on the job, working with teachers to piece together a remote learning curriculum for students stuck at home at least until May 4.

“This is such a different situation,” Provost explained.

Still, similarities persist.

As coronavirus cases across the country ramped up in late February and early March, district leaders had custodians manually wipe down high touch surfaces and use the same mist machine they used to clean Mulready in January.

That mister is a portable contraption resembling a leaf blower. It’s manufactured by the company GenEon and had, Provost said, been used in smaller situations even before this year when the district noted spikes in noroviruses or other illnesses in schools.

According to company advertisements, the mist machine is designed to clean large open spaces like classrooms without the need for copious amounts of harsh chemicals. With the flu, Provost said, its use had immediate results.

“I think [the flu] ended quickly because we were very proactive about what we were doing,” she said. “We were [cleaning] religiously every night…Everything was covered.”

Elsewhere, the district used many of the same outreach plans to communicate with parents in both the flu outbreak and the COVID-19 surge, especially prior to its closure of schools in the latter case.

“We were reiterating the fact that it’s OK if they miss school,” she said, particularly about the flu response. “We had to really give that message out so that they understood that it was OK. We wanted them to get better.”

In the end, though, Provost reiterates that these situations are far from even being broadly alike.

Notably, as students sick with the flu generally missed less than a week of school, they’ve all already been out of classes due to COVID-19 for close to three weeks.

That’s a fact Provost said the district will continue to reconcile, confident about the ways past experience informed their initial response, but also aware that COVID-19 will last much longer than any health crisis the district has previously seen.

“We want kids to continue to learn,” she said. “It’s just in a different mode right now.”