I was on a Zoom call recently with 45 other parents of elementary kids. Our principal and school nurse were available for a pandemic themed back to school Q&A. Access to meals, Chromebooks, and support for remote learners were justified and important topics. But the topic that terrifies all of us was also talked about for a significant amount of time: What happens if my kid gets sick?
This is valid question and a situation most working parents dread during normal times. None of us want our kids to feel crappy, but a sick kid is not always an employer’s concern or source of empathy. A sick kid throws a wrench into our society’s system of “work first, take care later” culture. Sadly this is true even during a pandemic, according to our leadership. With so many of us having been stripped of affordable care options over the last six months, back to school is a bit of a relief for some working parents (like me), but doesn’t come without risk.
Our kids will almost certainly get sick this fall and winter, as they always do, but the bigger fear and question is this: Does my kid have a common cold or COVID-19? How do we distinguish between the two, and when can my kid return to school?
In general, kids who are positive for COVID-19 show more mild symptoms, if any at all. They are stealth carriers, which makes them not just dangerous to their peers and family members but to the teachers and staff who they will see while at school. Common symptoms of COVID-19 include cough, runny nose, headache, sore throat, and fever. These are also symptoms present in allergies, common colds, the flu, and other (less deadly) viruses our kids experience throughout the year, but especially during cold and flu season. This can make diagnosing an illness complicated. To see a chart comparing the symptoms of common illnesses, click here.
The CDC reports that it’s common for kids to get up to 8 non-COVID-19 respiratory viruses each year. Even with the extra hand-washing, sanitizing, and mask wearing, we can’t eliminate all risks of illness, but we can mitigate some of them — and that starts with our commitment to keeping our kids home even if they only have the sniffles.
Unfortunately states and school districts vary, but the CDC recommends that your kids can’t go to school if they have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, have traveled to a place where cases are high without them quarantining first, or are experiencing one or more of these symptoms: fever of 100.4 or greater, chills, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, lack of taste or smell, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, muscle or body aches, and headache.
If your kids are experiencing one or more of these symptoms, that doesn’t mean they have COVID-19. If they have been home because of an illness, have not been knowingly exposed to someone with COVID-19, and have been fever free for 24 hours with no specific diagnosis they may be able to return to school. Your child’s pediatrician and school nurses can work with you to determine when your child is safe to return to school.
If your child is sick and has been exposed to someone with COVID-19 or traveled to a place where COVID-19 cases are high, then a student will need to follow their school’s quarantine rules. The school nurse will help families walk through all scenarios to see if it’s best to stay home, call the doctor, or contact your Department of Health for guidance on how best to monitor your sick child. Regular testing of students and staff is not recommended by the CDC, which may seem counterintuitive, but the tests don’t provide enough reduction of person-to-person transmission based on when the test is taken and when a person may be contagious.
Dr. Fisher, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and medical director of the Unterberg Children’s Hospital at Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch, N.J, says, “We’ve become so hooked on testing that people are getting the impression that testing somehow puts you in a bubble or protects you in some way. If you get tested, it’s only a moment in time.”
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a test done if one is available, but a negative test doesn’t guarantee a person doesn’t have COVID-19, and a person may still test positive even after symptoms are gone. According to the CDC, you can be around others 10 days after symptoms first appeared, are fever free for 24 hours, and symptoms are improving. But work with your school nurse and pediatrician to see what is best for your child, family and community based on the many variables at play to be sure everyone stays as safe as possible.
There is no other way to say this: If your kid is sick, keep them home. If you even suspect your kid might not feel well, keep them home. And be prepared to pick up your kid if a school nurse calls you because they begin to show symptoms that could possibly be COVID-19. If they also have a fever, most schools and school nurses will point out that it has always been the rule to keep kids home for at least 24 hours after a fever has disappeared without the aid of over-the-counter medicines. But because a fever may not always be present with kids who are positive with COVID-19, guardians will need to use judgement that protects everyone and doesn’t just serve their household.
I love my community and I love my no-bullshit educators. Before our school nurse explained the two-page checklist full of algorithms designed by the Vermont Department of Health and UVM Medical Center to determine answers to all of the if/then statements, she was very clear: We can’t take any chances. She admitted to working while sick at different points pre-COVID-19. And I know she knows parents send their kids to school even when not feeling great or when dosed on Tylenol. She asked all of us as a community to let go of that push to rush kids back into the classroom when they aren’t feeling well. We need to be more vigilant than ever before, and attendance policies matter much less than public health.
Our teachers and school administrators are doing the best they can to support us, but we need to be flexible and compassionate with them as they follow through with the guidelines in place to keep all of us healthy and protected.