After flu shuts down entire school district, administrators try to ensure schools can reopen on Tuesday

BRANCHBURG TOWNSHIP, N.J. — One local school district now tries to ensure that it can open on Tuesday, after the current flu epidemic, one of the worst, if not the worst, ever, kept the doors of every school in the district closed on Monday.

It's the latest blow in what's proving to be an outbreak that's breaking records for severity and for the numbers of people infected. The most recent statistics from the New Jersey Department of Health show that the number of diagnosed flu cases so far this season in the Garden State is 7,300. At this same time last year, the number of cases was far lower, at 4,200.

Among the high numbers this season are people who left the Branchburg, New Jersey school district with no choice but to shut down its schools.

Not among the sick were many students, like fifth grader Matthew Chubenko, who was at a Branchburg park, in its playground on Monday morning, playing with his little brother, Christian, and their friend, Jonathan. Ordinarily, just before noon on a Monday, Matthew said he'd be doing something else.

"Math," he told PIX11 News. "And [I'm] pretty sure today was science."

He, his friends, and most of the 1,475 students who attend the three schools that make up the district, were not out sick, even though they were out of school, and sickness was the reason.

An official announcement sent out by the school district on Sunday explained the situation. "All Branchburg schools will be closed tomorrow, Monday, February 5, 2018," the email and text sent out to families read, "due to an outbreak of the flu among essential personnel."

The personnel to whom the announcement referred were not school administrators or teachers.

"The drivers were down, sick," said Rebecca Gensel, the Branchburg superintendent of schools. "We didn't have enough backup drivers to run enough routes to get the kids to school."

So many school bus drivers were sick with the flu, she said, that there weren't enough drivers to get the children of the district to school.

Margaret Warianka, the grandmother of two elementary schoolers in the district, indicated a dilemma that faced many local families, even as she expressed relief that hers was spared. "Luckily, I retired on the first [of February]," she said, "so they lucked out that I can watch them."

When the situation was revealed on Sunday afternoon, it left many local families scrambling during the Super Bowl to find childcare for Monday. Speaking of the big game, there were a few comments on social media and, apparently, in private conversations, that were suspicious of the timing of the flu dilemma on the morning after the Super Bowl. However, the person responsible for the schools said it was not the issue.

"We're a small district," Superintendent Gensel told PIX11 News. "So when a third of our drivers are out, that has a huge impact for us."

It's also worth noting that when the Eagles, the Giants, and the Jets have been in the Super Bowl in the past, there were enough drivers healthy enough to keep the Branchburg District open.

So the challenge that faces Branchburg now is reopening on Tuesday.

"We've pieced together enough drivers that are familiar with our students and with our routes, to get the buses back on the road" for Tuesday, Gensel said.

She did warn that there may be some delays in the Tuesday morning pickup schedule, but that it's "80 percent up and running," and that a new electronic alert will be sent out to families on Monday night.

Medical authorities, including the Centers for Disease Control, point out that the flu takes days to run its course, so it may be a while before Branchburg's school transportation situation gets back to normal.