When to Keep Sick Kids Home from School?

August 23rd, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

For working parents, the decision can be especially difficult.

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The Responsibility Project

It’s back-to-school time again, which means your children will have ample exposure to whatever latest bug or cold is making the rounds this fall. But for working parents especially, deciding when to keep their kids home once they develop symptoms has become a complicated affair.

When my child became sick last fall, I kept her home for two weeks after checking the Centers for Disease Control website and discovering that young children can be infectious for 10 days after the onset of symptoms. In my estimation, it was the responsible thing to do. On the other hand, I am in a better position than most working moms to stay home with a sick child for nearly two weeks – unlike, for instance, this Chicago-area mom who lost her job when she stayed home with her child who’d picked up pinkeye.

I was surprised by this study conducted by the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee that found childcare centers are too quick to send toddlers home for mild illnesses, including “pinkeye, ringworm or mild fever.” Now, it’s true that by the time the symptoms are on display, the damage has often already been done. Dr. Andrew N. Hashikawa of the Medical College of Wisconsin adds, “Exclusion is ‘a significant burden for parents,’ who may be forced to take unpaid sick leave or scramble to find an alternative.”

Still, I can see the viewpoint of “Fern,” who commented on the article: “The physician’s concern really should NOT be based on whether sending children home is a ‘significant burden for parents’ but on the child’s personal health and the threat of contagion to others.” “Ece” added: “As far as ‘damage already done,’ if the child continues to be contagious, then they shouldn’t be allowed in the center.”

The debate is making me wonder what I would have done if I hadn’t been in a more convenient position. I’ve taken the advice of pediatrician Dr. Bill Sears to heart, who provides a laundry list of symptoms that should keep your kid home, but also provides some ideas about contingency planning.

I’m curious to know how other people feel about this issue. Working moms and dads, would you rather your daycare called you at the first sight of a symptom, or temporarily turned a blind eye to avoid burdening you? Would you put your kid back in class just a little earlier than you’d like because you’d be afraid to put your job on the line or do whatever it takes to keep them home until they’re well?

(A portion of this story was previously published as “The Germaphobe’s Dilemma” on The Responsibility Project on 9/3/10)