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Is Your Kid Too Sick to Go to School?

“I’m siiiiick!” says your kid, first thing in the morning when it’s time to get ready for school. Now what? Do you call out of work and keep them home? Do you just send them in and hope for the best? When is your kid too sick to go to school? and why can’t they go to school when they are sick?

Sick kids do not learn well. Sick kids get everyone else sick. In addition to teaching the kids important things like frequent proper handwashing and how to cover their cough, it’s important to know when you should keep them away from everyone else. This list explains some reasons why sick kids should stay home.

  • Fever: If your child feels warm, check their temperature. The current guidelines say that if a child has a temperature of 100.4 or above they should not come to school and must stay out of school until their temperature is normal (below 100) for 24 hours without any fever-reducing medicine (Tylenol, Motrin). If they have a fever and you give medicine to bring it down, they still need to stay home! You can not give them Motrin/Tylenol and send them to school – you’re gonna get a phone call as soon as the fever comes back and have to pick them up anyway.
  • Diarrhea: Diarrhea is technically 3 or more loose bowel movements in a day. Often it is accompanied by stomach cramps, a fever, vomiting, and fatigue. There isn’t much you can do to stop it from happening since you shouldn’t really give kids antidiarrheal medicine, so you just have to wait for it to run its course and treat the side effects. They need rest, fluids to stay hydrated, bland foods (like the BRAT diet – bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast), and the comfort of their own toilet at home. They should stay out of school until they are at least 24 hours without diarrhea.
  • Vomiting: This pretty much speaks for itself. If your child is throwing up they need to stay home. Not only can they not learn very well while they are nauseous and throwing up but they will likely get everyone else sick too. The same information applies for vomiting as diarrhea – they need rest, fluids (sips of Pedialyte or Gatorade), bland foods (like the BRAT diet), and their own bed or couch to lay on until they feel better.
  • Cough: If your child has a cough you have a few things to consider about keeping them home or sending them to school. Why are they coughing? If they have simple seasonal allergies that you are managing then they can come to school (assuming they aren’t having a severe allergy attack with uncontrollable coughing). If they have asthma that is under control but having a bit of a flare then they can come to school and the school nurse can help manage asthma medications at school. If they are having a bad asthma flare that you are having a difficult time controlling then they need to see a doctor (pediatrician, urgent care, or emergency room) and not come to school until they are under control. If they are having cold symptoms including excessive coughing, excessive stuffy/runny nose, fevers, or vomiting from coughing so hard then they should stay home. Not only can they not concentrate on school and learning but they are going to get everyone else sick too.
  • Sore Throat: Sore throats can come from a lot of things. Sometimes it’s a simple scratchy throat from allergies or post-nasal drip (mucus that runs down the back of the throat from the nose) or even lots of yelling but sometimes the sore throat is bad and an indicator of a bigger issue such as Strep Throat. Strep is super contagious. It usually includes a sore throat, swollen red tonsils with difficulty swallowing, spots and white stuff on the tonsils (in the back of the throat) and fever. Sometimes strep also comes with stomachache and vomiting, headache, or a red spotty rash all over that feels rough like sandpaper. Strep rarely has a cough or congestion associated with it but sometimes you can have two things at once and also have a cold with your strep. The child needs to see the doctor and be tested and treated with antibiotics for strep. Your child needs to be treated for at least 24 hours for strep before they can return to school.
  • Rashes: Most rashes are no big deal and your child can probably come to school with no issue. Occasionally they get something that is contagious though. Rashes such as ringworm (a red circle with a clear center, itchy) MUST be treated before returning to school. A rash that looks like chickenpox (clear fluid-filled blisters, super itchy, accompanied by a fever and respiratory symptoms) MUST stay home until the blisters have crusted over and the other symptoms are gone. Scabies looks like small red pimples that often travel in a line on the skin and are itchy. The student must be treated by a doctor before returning to school. MRSA (Methicillin Resistant Staph Aureus) looks like inflamed pimples or abscesses on the skin. It is also very contagious and needs to be addressed by a doctor. I could go on forever about different rashes but that is for a different post.
  • Lice: Again, this one speaks for itself. The current protocol for my district (and I think many others) is that if your child is noted to have lice at school they may stay till the end of the day and then may not return to school until they have been treated and the parents bring proof that the child is treated. If they only have nits (eggs) they may come to school but it is super important to carefully comb through the hair and remove the eggs. See my other post about dealing with lice for more information.
  • Pinkeye: If your child has tons of discharge from their eye (more than normal eye sleepies), the eye is red and super itchy then definitely keep them home and have that looked at by a doctor.
  • An outbreak of vaccinatable disease that your child isn’t vaccinated for: It’s important that all students have a complete schedule of immunizations when attending school but sometimes they don’t for various reasons. If your child does not have full immunizations for something like Measles and there are cases of Measles known at your child’s school then your child will need to stay home until the outbreak is over. This is for their own safety and the safety of others to prevent more spread of the disease.
  • General Illness: You know your kid better than most other people so when your kid acts sick or says they are sick then listen to them and use your judgment if they seem like they would benefit from being home. Sometimes it’s a stomachache or a headache or they didn’t sleep well and you can see that they are in no condition to concentrate in school. While we want everyone to stay on track and have good attendance, we also don’t want them to be sick or unable to learn.

All of this being said, as the parent or guardian of the child/children in question you have to make yourself available to be contacted in the case that the school needs to call you. If your child has a fever at school, begins vomiting or having diarrhea, or anything else is noted, we absolutely must be able to contact you. Make sure the school has correct and current phone numbers, email addresses, and home addresses in case of an emergency. I know not everyone has a great support system, unfortunately, but try to have a backup babysitter just in case your child is sick and you can’t call out of work.

We also need to know about your kid. Get the health forms filled out and turn them in so we know what to expect with your child’s health and how to best care for them. Bring the medication forms and medications needed at school so we can help them in an emergency. Fill out the form that gives us permission to give your child Motrin or Tylenol – or state that you do not want us to, that’s up to you!

When in doubt, don’t be afraid to call your school nurse and ask!

I have included a link to an awesome website from Dupont Hospital that can give you a lot of information.

TL/DR: Keep kids home from school if they are sick. Wash hands and cover coughs. Provide the school with emergency info like contact information and health forms.

Published by Emme Mauer M.Ed., BSN, RN, CSN

Mom to two preemies, anxiety sufferer, postpartum depression survivor, and school nurse extraordinaire.

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