Flu outbreak closes Williamstown Elementary School for remainder of week


WILLIAMSTOWN — With more than 100 students and 20 staff members reportedly suffering flu, the town Board of Health on Wednesday ordered Williamstown Elementary School to shut down for the remainder of the week.

"We really felt we had to go ahead and do something," board member Erwin Stuebner said.

School physician Childsy Art had performed cultures on the sick and found more than one strain of influenza — both A and B — among the building's population. Stuebner called the occurrence "exceedingly rare" and a "freak coincidence."

Art also thought the building should be closed.

Superintendent Douglas Dias said, "[The Board of Health] insisted we close to prevent further contagion."

He added, "My first concern is always the health and safety of the students and staff. I was seriously considering closing the school anyhow. Then, the [board and school physician] confirmed what I already felt by giving unanimous advice."

Though unfortunate, the events occurred at perhaps a fortuitous time, if they had to happen at all: School's out next week for April vacation.

The break will give the sick time to recover and maintenance staff a chance to perform a thorough cleaning on the building.

"Schools can unfortunately become a real incubator," Stuebner said. "Hopefully, this will break the cycle."

A notification posted on the school website and emailed to families of students on Wednesday said the building would remain closed off until Monday, April 18, to "allow cleaning of the building as well as time for any residual virus spores to die while minimizing further transmission between students and staff."

Total student enrollment at the school is 450 and it employs 70 staffers.

The school administration initially perceived an uptick in illness and absentees late last week as no more than "seasonal illness," Dias said.

By Monday, more than 100 students were absent and numerous staff — including Principal Joelle Brookner.

It was then that the Board of Health was first notified by Dias of the situation.

"We said, 'Let's wait a day or two to see if the situation improves,' " Stuebner said. "It did not."

Absentee levels remained as high or slightly higher.

Because so many staff were missing due to illness, art, music and computer classes were being canceled, and others combined, as the school struggled to find enough substitutes to plug the holes.

"As an educator, you obviously loath to close a school, but face facts: When a quarter of the school is absent and sick, you have to make that call," Dias said.

The illness was "isolated," according to Dias, who said no such problem existed at district schools Mount Greylock Regional High School and Lanesborough Elementary School, nor at other regional schools he contacted.

"It was certainly something I've never seen, and [Brookner] has been at the school for more than 20 years and she's never seen anything like it, either," Stuebner said.

Earlier this year, WES was closed four total days due to issues with the heating system.

School picks up again after vacation on Monday, April 25. On April 22 and 23, the school will still host the Friends of Milne Public Library used book sale.

"Hopefully, the people who are ill can recover and enjoy the break, the people who are not sick will stay that way, and everyone can return from break refreshed and ready to resume studies," Dias said.

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.


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