School district shuts down to combat rapidly spreading virus

A Colorado school district shut down in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving as it works to eradicate a contagious virus that is thought be to spreading rapidly across its schools.

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Mesa County Valley School District 51 – which is the 14th-largest school district in Colorado – announced on its website Wednesday that all schools will be closed until the end of Thanksgiving. The closure also includes all after-school activities.

Mesa County Public Health, which is working with the district to stop the spread of the illness, believes norovirus may be the culprit. Norovirus is a contagious virus that causes vomiting and diarrhea, with symptoms developing 12 to 48 hours after exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The illness is acting a lot like norovirus, we do not have a lab-confirmed diagnosis of the illness, but we are working with healthcare providers," the health department said.

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This is the first time that the district has had to close all of its schools due to an illness, according to D51 nursing coordinator Tanya Marvin, who added that the districtwide closure was a “highly unusual action,” though a necessary one.

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“We are taking this highly unusual action because this virus is extremely contagious and spreading quickly across our schools,” Marvin said. “In addition, it appears that there is now a second, related virus that is affecting students, some of whom have already been ill in recent weeks. The combination of the two has created an unprecedented spread of illness.”

Over the course of the next few weeks, the district’s custodial crews and environmental health and safety team will perform an intense cleaning of the school buildings.

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"Past experience with these types of viruses tell us having a period of time away from close person-to-person contact can be instrumental in these illnesses running their course. This will give those building a window to disinfect and start fresh after the Thanksgiving Holiday," said Jeff Kuhr, Mesa County Public Health executive director.

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The district, which is based in Grand Junction, has nearly 3,000 employees that serve more than 22,000 students across its 46 schools and programs, according to its website. It's comprised of 24 elementary schools, eight middle schools, four high schools, a middle/high school, three charter schools, two K-12 schools and an alternative high school.