I'm a Mom and a School Nurse: Here's How To Know When To Keep Your Kid Home Sick From School
With the first part of the school year nearly behind us, it's clear that this year is one of the most challenging we've encountered to date. Every day, parents face difficult decisions regarding the well-being of their families. They, along with school faculty and students, all navigate an unpredictable school landscape.
As a mom and an elementary school nurse myself, I'm uniquely positioned to see what is happening behind both home and school walls. Here are my thoughts on the challenges parents face navigating a pandemic school year, and what parents don't always realize about the way schools operate to keep students safe.
Parents Are All Just Doing Their Best Without Child Care Options
From an outsider's perspective, it can be difficult to understand a parent's decision to go against school guidelines and send their child to school with the sniffles, or to fight against a school's policy requiring a two-week quarantine due to exposure to COVID-19. After all, these policies were clearly designed to keep us safe and, at this point in the pandemic, feel like common sense.
However, as a mom, I can understand parents' frustration with the ever-changing and unpredictable school landscape. Many parents with young children lack affordable child care options and, after more than a year of balancing child care on top of all their other responsibilities, are feeling burned out and exhausted. For most, keeping their child at home while they try to work stopped feeling feasible a long time ago. Meanwhile, others were never in a position where they could do both and are currently trying to rebuild or restart their careers. Having to add daily child care back to their list of responsibilities feels like a regression to an earlier point in the pandemic when there were no other options.
Parents who send their sick children to school or argue against the two-week quarantine might also do so because they are concerned about the constant disruptions to their child's education and school experience. With repeated exposures and quarantines forcing some children to miss more school days than they have attended, the back-to-school experience has not been what some families hoped it would be.
What Happens When You Send a Sick Child to School?
I empathize with these parents' situations and wish I could bring solutions to the table. But as a school nurse who sees what really happens when a sick child is sent to school, my message for parents is this: keeping children home when they are sick is imperative for the long-term well-being of the children, educators, and the entire school community.
For parents who are concerned that their child will miss school, I want to remind them that if a teacher, or a majority of the class, contracts a contagious illness (whether the flu, strep, or COVID-19), the disruptions this could cause to their child's school experience could be far worse than just two weeks away. Whole classrooms and schools have been shut down in similar situations.
Having a sick child at school also puts a strain on school resources and prevents nurses like myself from performing the full extent of our duties to help keep students and faculty healthy and safe. In normal times, school nurses do much more than give out band-aids—we manage chronic conditions, administer medications, track medical histories, help students manage stress and anxiety, among other responsibilities. Now, the pandemic has added to school nurses' list of responsibilities. On top of all of our regular duties, we are also administering virus tests and logging the results, managing isolation rooms for sick students, and conducting contact tracing—all while trying to stay on top of changing guidelines and helping to inform and reassure worried parents. When school nurses are stretched too thin, it impairs our ability to support classrooms and the entire school, which has a direct impact on your child's educational experience.
What Parents Can Do
Parents should keep an eye out for any symptoms their child may be experiencing—whether it be symptoms of COVID-19, the flu, RSV, or another illness. If you're not sure whether the way your child is feeling is a sign they are sick and should stay home, the CDC website provides a list of common symptoms that can accompany different illnesses.
As a best practice, if your child exhibits symptoms indicating they might be sick, it's best to keep them home and consult a medical professional. Once you have a diagnosis, alert their school so they are in the loop and can advise on the appropriate next actions. Typically, a child needs to be fever free for 24 hours without any medication in order to return to school but schools may have their own COVID protocols so check with them to be sure. Looking out for early symptoms of illness and responding to them accordingly is the best way to keep the community at large healthy and safe.
There are a number of existing tools and programs that can help parents and schools alike do this. For example, to help parents identify symptoms and give faculty the ability to monitor the spread of illness at schools, my school participates in the Kinsa and Lysol FLUency program, which distributes Lysol disinfecting products and educational materials to schools, and free smart thermometers to parents. The latter allows parents to take their child's temperature and record symptoms they may be experiencing in the accompanying app each morning before they head to school. This anonymous data is then uploaded to the school's private dashboard and used to inform health and safety policies that reduce community transmission. Parents can advocate to bring programs like this to their schools and speak with administrators to learn about the ways they are mitigating risks in the classroom.
Parents can also implement healthy hygiene habits in their homes, such as regularly washing hands and forming a cleaning and disinfecting routine to remove germs from surfaces year-round. Disinfecting products can kill almost 100 percent of viruses and bacteria when used as directed, so keeping a consistent cleaning and disinfecting routine will help keep germs at bay throughout the year. It's also important to continue wearing masks in public to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
While I'm sure we'll face plenty of new challenges before the school year is up, let's act together, as parents and schools, to exercise empathy for the challenges the other face and to keep our students safe.
Nurse Holly Giovi, of May Moore Elementary School in Deer Park, New York, has more than 26 years of nursing experience. Holly began with OB-GYN where her love of teaching was born and has also had roles as a hypnobirth educator and in-home care nurse. Since the start of the pandemic, she's worked with the Department of Health to set up standard operating procedures for multiple COVID testing sites, as well as antibody screening clinics. She is currently in her eighth year of school nursing and third year of participating in the FLUency school health program, sponsored by Lysol.