How Do You Decide How Sick Is Too Sick for School?

A new poll sheds light on how parents decide when to keep kids home sick from school.
Ermolaev Alexander/Shutterstock

Okay, confession time: I sent my oldest daughter to school today even though she has a cold. Because she has a test, and because she just recently had to miss school due to a tummy bug with vomiting. But I'll also admit I struggled with my decision to send her, and according to a new survey, the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health, I'm not alone.

The poll of 1,442 parents found that, like me, many have a tough time deciding how sick is too sick for their kiddos to board the school bus. Parents also differed on the true consequences of missing school, and of having to miss work to stay home with a sick child.

While 75 percent of parents report their child missed at least one school day due to illness in the past year (just one?!), parents of younger kids between the age of 6 and 9 were more likely to value a child's health status as very important. According to the survey, parents of high-schoolers worried more about a missed test and attendance, which makes sense. My kindergartner isn't exactly prepping for the SATs!

Of course, symptoms played a big role in parents' decision-making process. Stomach-related issues like vomiting and diarrhea were more likely to warrant a sick day. But interestingly, just 58 percent of parents thought a child throwing up once (with no other symptoms) should keep him or her home, while 80 percent said when a child is suffering from diarrhea, he or she shouldn't go to school. For me, those symptoms are no-brainers; my kid is staying home!

C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health, 2017

Colds are where things get murkier for me. As every parent knows, children can be coughing and have a runny nose, but be bouncing off the walls with energy. So it's hard to justify keeping them home. In fact, of the parents surveyed, just 16 percent would keep a kiddo home who had red watery eyes but no fever, and even fewer—12 percent—felt a runny nose, dry cough, and no fever was enough to keep a kid home.

I was surprised to see that just under half of parents wouldn't send a child to school if he or she had a slight fever. A fever, like vomiting or diarrhea, is an automatic no-school symptom in my book.

Now here's where I make another confession: I sometimes doubt myself after I've made my decision about whether to send my child to school. As lead author and Mott poll co-director Gary Freed, M.D., M.P.H said in a press release, "It can be difficult to predict if a child will feel worse after going to school or how long symptoms of minor illnesses will last, so parents are often basing decisions on their best guess." Pretty much.

Of course there's also other kids' well-being to consider. I don't want my kid to infect the entire class if she has a virus. But I also don't want to go overboard and keep her home every time she coughs. So it's a tough line to walk, especially for working parents. The poll revealed that 11 percent of parents make their decisions about sending kids to school based on not wanting to miss work; 18 percent take into consideration that they may not have anyone to care for their child if they do go to work.

The next time you are wondering if you should send your child to school, check out the AAP's guidelines, which suggest keeping kids home if they:

  • Have a fever
  • Would have trouble participating in class
  • Could be contagious

How do you go about making a decision about whether to send your sick child to school?

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Find her on Facebook where she chronicles her life momming under the influence. Of coffee.

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