Forsyth: Is my child too sick for school, daycare?

A lot to consider when a child gets sick

I read an article recently, which stated, “The common cold is not enough reason to keep a child at home.”

As a teacher and as a parent of children in group settings, I thought: In whose universe?

Not to ruffle feathers, and I agree that the occasional runny nose or very mild cough is not enough reason to have to take a few days off of work or miss several days of school, but this is a very age dependent statement.

A six year old capable of coughing into their elbow and keeping their nose and hands clean can certainly be at school. They do not require a teacher to assist them, nor are they as hands-on with other children as younger kids are. Lastly, they do not turn into weepy, sad, unwell, shadows of their former selves.


On the other hand, a one- or two- year-old child with a runny nose needs constant attention and help with wiping it, keeping her little face and hands clean, and keeping snot off of everything she touches. She needs a teacher or caregiver in close proximity at all times to wipe and help with hand washing and to keep an eye out for “snot fangs” as we call them at my house. Heaven forbid she sneezes and it lets loose. Yes, a caregiver is there for the purpose of caring for children. However, she or he is probably not there to care for your child only. If you are lucky enough to have one-on-one care for your child, then this might be a moot point. For groups of children though, even the common cold can mean the teacher or caregiver is spending all of her time caring for one child and not enough with the remainder. And let’s consider that the caregiver gets ill (which happens, naturally, but we can help prevent it). Now no one’s child is getting care because that caregiver has had to close the daycare to get well. Or perhaps she is trying to console her own children who are now ill. And then there are the pregnant teachers who cannot take medication to help with their discomfort, or those with very young babies who have a more difficult time coping with illness.

In other words, it’s imperative to keep in mind the bigger picture when looking at whether your wee one is well enough to send off to daycare or playschool/preschool. Yes, it can be an inconvenience for the parents of the sick child, who have to find alternate care or miss work themselves to stay home, but to me, this seems less inconvenient than sending the illness spiralling through a group of families. It’s also a given, when we have children.

You might think this would be common sense, but in my years teaching I had plenty of parents try to drop off children in class who had conjunctivitis (pink eye), or constant green fangs, or even a heavy wheezy cough. In their minds, their child wasn’t all that unwell. Perhaps more disheartening though, was that to them, it was more important that they not miss work than it was that I (and 16 other parents) be able to be at work and that our families remain in good health. I lost count of the number of times we had to send a little one home because they were too unwell to be at school — only to have the parent return them the following day in the same condition. Some parents even argued that they had to be at work, so they had no choice.

Teachers/daycare providers need to be at work too, and many other children need them to be there also. Let’s consider how hands on Pre-K, Kindergarten teachers, and daycare providers are with young children. Much different from a Grade Two teacher, as far as physical closeness goes. Much more likely to be germ magnets.

Obviously it is unreasonable to take time off work for every little cough, or keep your child home for an entire week because there has been the occasional sneeze, but here are some things to ask yourself when deciding whether they are well enough to be in a group environment:

POLICIES: Most importantly, please familiarize yourself with (and respect) the policies of your school, daycare, or caregiver, with regard to illness. This information will be provided to you at the time of registration, so you then have opportunity to choose an alternate setting or to agree with those policies.

It’s a contract. Generally, these policies will be aligned with licensing regulations but some will differ depending on the setting. Going against those policies, after agreeing to them, just isn’t nice for anyone and causes friction.

DISCHARGE: Occasional, clear, runny noses are not a reason for alarm. Going through a box of facial tissue in one morning, is. If a child is in a lot of discomfort, and needs to wipe their nose (or have it wiped) every few minutes, keep them in an environment where there is someone available for one on one attention. If there is an infection (strep, pink eye, bacterial, etc.) it must be treated for 24 hours before returning the child to a group setting. At a birthday party for our oldest child when she turned six, we had a friend deliver her own daughter to the party with pink eye, stating that she had just come from the doctor and already had one round of drops, so she would be fine. I almost fainted. A cold however, is a virus, and does not need to be (nor can it be) treated with antibiotics. A cold and an infection are two different things. Below are reasons to visit the doctor and absolute reasons to stay home:

l Drainage is foul-smelling, one-sided, or a color other than white or yellow

l Symptoms last more than 10 days in a child under three years old

l There is fever with nasal discharge

DISCOMFORT: If your child is in crummy spirits, uncomfortable, and just generally unwell — the day is not going to be fun for anyone — her, her friends, or her caregivers/teacher. Keep her jammies on, hydrate her, and let her snuggle up on the couch for movie day. Childhood is too short to be miserable, especially when the only thing that will make you feel better is your parent. While your instinct might be to send them to school/daycare, ask yourself what kind of child you’ll be picking up at the end of the day.

DIARRHEA: Let’s not mince words here — it’s just downright unfair to everyone to make that child leave the house.

OTHER FAMILIES: Be mindful that when other parents come for drop off or pick up and see that you’ve delivered your sick child to school or care, possibly against policy and common courtesy, there might be some backlash. If not specifically in your direction, the teacher is likely to hear about it and get complaints. That teacher then has to deal with a really ticked off parent who does keep their child home when ill so as not to make your’s sick. It’s a two-way street of parental respect and the teacher or caregiver shouldn’t have to police. One parent missing work because they need to stay home to care for a sick child, is much better than nine parents missing work because of sick kids or the daycare being closed because of a sick caregiver.

At the end of the day, there are a lot of things to factor into making the decision about how unwell is too unwell but the one thing we know for sure, is that there is more to consider than just whether it’s convenient.

Regan L. Forsyth is a Maternity and Pediatric Sleep Coach

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