You know the drill. Your school-bound child tugs at the side of your bed sheet, whining, “Mommy, I don’t feel good.” You quickly assess the situation. Runny nose? Check. Heavy cough? Check. Temp? 98.6.
Is your child in the clear because he doesn’t have a fever? Or do those sniffles mean rest is best? These are questions all parents seem to face when trying to determine just how sick our kids are. So. When should you send them off – and when’s it best to keep them home?
A doctor’s take
Dr. Neena Bhargava of McLaren Macomb Pediatrics suggests that you keep kids home if they have a fever over 100 F, acute runny nose or coughing, and any vomiting or diarrhea. Coughs can be signs of bronchitis or pneumonia, and fevers are often an indication of a viral infection. A tummy ache or the sniffles do not meet the criteria to keep them home – even if these symptoms are accompanied by a theatrical presentation of tears.
Lots of fluids and plenty of rest, in most cases, seem to do the trick, but sometimes a trip to the doctor is necessary. Worsening symptoms, dehydration, rashes or sights of blood should require immediate attention from your pediatrician. It’s unnecessary (not to mention costly) to take your child to the doctor every time she develops a cough or cold and, with weak immune systems and germ-infested environments, it’s much easier for kids to get sick.
“Typically, a child can have six to eight colds per year, on average,” Bhargava explains. If your child missed school for the duration of each illness, he or she would be absent a lot.
If you decide to keep your child home from school, how long before she can return to school? Bhargava agrees with the general rule that children should go back to school 24 hours after their symptoms have subsided.
“Our school says kids can come to school if they have a ‘slight’ cold,” says Lisa Kolb, a mother of triplets from Canton. “I keep my kids home if they have yellow or green nasal discharge, sore throat, earache, fever and, of course, vomiting or diarrhea.”
Michigan law allows school districts to create their own attendance polices and how they distinguish between excused and unexcused absences. Many schools consider written documentation of illness an excused absence.
But the issue of missing school is more than whether your child will technically get in trouble for having too many absences. There’s also the matter of missing key lessons that will affect their education, of course.
“There is really no substitute for the kind of instruction kids get in school,” says Kristen Berry, a mother of two and an English teacher at Clifford Smart Middle School in Walled Lake. “As a teacher, I can see the direct correlation between attendance and achievement.
“Kids who stay home too often are missing out on the kind of directions and examples that help them gain the skills they need. Additionally, the kids who miss school clearly are not able to participate in the kind of activities that result from student-to-student interaction.”
Yet sending a sick child to school can be almost as detrimental as keeping them home. “Sick kids at school are miserable, uncomfortable and usually are not gaining anything more than they would be if they stayed home,” says Berry. “It’s a catch-22 for sure.”
Sending a sick child to school can affect other kids and faculty, too.
“The rate of transmission at that age is very high, so they are going to spread their illness to other children,” Bhargava says. This only increases the risk of other children getting sick – which, in the long run, can circle back around to your own child. Schools are potential breeding grounds for germs since young children are close in contact and share just about everything from scissors to sandwiches.
But the American Pediatric Association, through its Healthy Child Care America program, recommends kids with the common cold go to school as long as they are still comfortable enough to partake in activities.
Why? Two reasons. For one, kids can catch germs from another child before, during or after that child is sick, so keeping a sick child home may not prevent others from catching the illness. In addition, the APA points out that although infections can spread to others, exposure to a harmless virus may have the potential to strengthen children’s immune systems.
Working parent dilemma
For working parents, the question of whether a child should be stay home sick is even trickier. Who will care for the child who stays home?
Some parents can’t afford to take the time off – or they have pressing meetings or work obligations that make it difficult. And finding a last-minute babysitter isn’t always an option.
“People may send their children to school and pray that they really aren’t as sick as their gut tells them they may be,” Kolbe says. “People are generally ‘pleasers,’ and the thought of taking off work if they themselves are not sick may make them feel guilty.”
Bhargava doesn’t have a solution for the working parent dilemma, but she gets it.
“I understand, as I am one of them,” Bhargava says. “Unfortunately, their child is sick and they need to stay home from school. I would suggest parents have a backup plan or that the people that employ them understand that they do have children and they need to take time off to take care of them.”
Here are a few other ideas for working parents:
- Save some personal days: For days like these, the easiest way out is to use paid time off. Save a few extra hours for child emergencies. If your company doesn’t provide PTO, talk to your supervisor in advance about the best plan of action if your child wakes up sick.
- Have a backup babysitter list: Start to accumulate a list of family, friends or care providers who could possibly be available at short notice. Keep their phone numbers and availability within reach.
- Watch for warning signs: Be aware of early warning signs in your child that could predict an oncoming illness. Does your child get a tickle in her throat or a headache? Recognize the signs and tend to these immediately to try to ward off illness.
Be honest. Your main priority is your child. That’s a given. But you also have to have a job and pay the bills. So, you have to balance the two obligations. Take turns with your spouse if you can, create a system and include your boss in finding solutions for sudden childhood sickness.
Whether you’re a working parent or a stay-at-home mom, it’s never easy tending to a sick child. The next time your tot wakes you up with tummy trouble, think of the advice from these three moms and the path of choice may become a little clearer. Oh, and never forget about your own parental instincts. After all, mother (or father) knows best.
This article was originally published in November 2012 and has been updated.