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Sending sick kids to school is a problem for everyone

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This time of year when colds and the flu seem to run rampant, many working parents find themselves in a dilemma: How do I know if my child is too sick to go to school or is my child well enough to be around other children? There comes a day when every working parent will have to answer this question and decide whether it's necessary to take a day off from work. As a result, it's crucial that parents know when it's absolutely safe to send a child to school or daycare and when a sick child is not completely ready. It's also important to have back up plans in place in the event a child gets sick while at school or if he or she is too sick to return to school after several days.

What are the signs of a child who is without a doubt too sick to go to school?

There typically are a few symptoms that could be cause for alarm and should signal parents to keep their children home immediately. Dr. Anatoly Belilovsky, a New York pediatrician, says that these include:

  • Fevers of 100.5 and above.
  • Coughs that are very severe and persistant as this could be a sign of a more serious illness.
  • Runny noses that are accompanied by a cough and/or fever, since that may be a sign that full blown symptoms are on the way.
  • Abdominal pain which could be an early sign of strep throat, pneumonia or appendicitis.
  • Sore throats which are typically an early sign of colds, flu or strep.
  • Wheezing that is associated with acute bronchitis or bronchiolitis (both contagious).
  • Aches and pains may be linked to a variety of causes so parents need to observe carefully and make the call as to whether it could be the onset of the flu or something else contagious. Vomiting can be associated with a number of illness so it's a good idea to keep the child at home to monitor.

In addition to these symptoms, Gary Kracoff, a naturopathic doctor and registered pharmacist for Johnson Compounding and Wellness Center (JCWC) in Waltham, Massachusetts says if a child is on antibiotics, he or she should stay home for at least 48 hours.

"It is difficult for parents to have to stay home with a sick child," says Kracoff. "But sending them to school or child care with these symptoms is not good for the child or for others in the school or center, and things can quickly spiral out of control."

Given that it's inevitable children sharing close quarters will likely get each other sick if the sick child isn't quarantined early enough, parents, especially working parents, need to have a plan in place for caring for little ones who take sick.

Jenni Ellis, an Atlanta mom and founder of social networking site for working moms Mom @ Work, says that if her son wakes up sick her first plan is to stay home with him. If there is a reason she must go to work, then she calls one of the three people that she has arranged with in advance to be “on call” in case she needs them to stay with her son. If none of the people “on call” are available to help, then she calls a professional babysitter who will come to her house and stay with her son for the day. "While I would love to always be at home with my son when he is sick, it is not always possible."

Parents, like Ellis, also rely on a school's sick policies and the enforcement of those policies to keep the healthy kids from getting sick in the first place. Parents can easily find out what a school or daycare's sick policies are and how they handle children who get sick while in their care.

Schools and daycares should routinely reinforce their guidelines for keeping a sick child at home in order to protect the health of the other children, their families and teachers. Schools should also have a clear policy on communicating with the families if there is an illness outbreak in a class and/or the entire school.

"As the parent of a child in daycare, I must say that I am blessed that my day care provider is very good at either sending a sick child home or not allowing a sick child to come in that day," says Ellis. "My daycare, like every other, does have parents that push the limits. I engage those parents in conversation about the child and his/her illness. I tend to drop in a remark about a time when it was difficult to make arrangements to keep my child home, but I did because I knew it was not only good for my child, but I didn’t want my child to spread anything to other children. Through this conversation I can find out more about the child’s illness and watch for signs and symptoms in my own child, and, as terrible as this sounds, hopefully the parent will think twice before sending their sick child to school."

So what can parents do this cold and flu season to help keep their families healthy?

Dr. Albert Arteaga of LaSalle Medical Associates in San Bernardino, California urges parents to have their children (and themselves) vaccinated against the H1N1 and seasonal flu viruses. “Children are especially at risk, because they have more opportunities to be exposed to the virus,” he said.

Kracoff also recommends parents make sure that they and their children eat well, drink plenty of water, get a lot of sleep, and – vitally important – wash hands often. "The whole family should take probiotics regularly," he says. "There are natural supplements that children can take that will help them fight off infection and won’t make them drowsy."

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