Written by Amy Shriver, MD for UnityPoint Health
As a general pediatrician, I enjoy the unique privilege of talking with families whose schools use all sorts of “Return to Learn” models. Some students are thriving, while others are struggling…a lot. To keep our schools open and safe, we must be laser-focused on reducing the number of COVID-19 outbreaks in our communities.
COVID-19 can look like a lot of health conditions. It’s been a challenge for caregivers and doctors to know which symptoms might be COVID-19 and which aren’t. Kids can have congestion and sore throats from allergies, bacteria (strep throat) or other common viruses. Headaches and body aches can occur from overuse of computer screens, vigorous exercise, dehydration or even trampoline use. The fall and winter also often mean a return of several illnesses that include coughing as a symptom, such as RSV, bronchiolitis and influenza. The absence of fever does not help us predict if your child has COVID-19 or not.
Even if you think your child only has a cold, keep them home from school or daycare and isolate per the CDC guidelines, which say students may return to school after 10 days of isolation and 24 hours fever free (without Tylenol or ibuprofen). If symptoms last longer, you need to stay home longer. If you or your child get tested for COVID-19, stay home until test results are back, even if you feel fine.
What about household contacts? If your child is staying home with COVID-19 symptoms, so should you.
Most schools have a plan in place to help parents review a child’s symptoms, often breaking the symptoms into high-risk (new cough, shortness of breath, loss of taste/smell) and low-risk (fever, headache, muscle aches, sore throat, congestion, runny nose, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea) categories. Make sure you’re aware of your school’s protocols. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevent (CDC) website offers another good resource for symptoms to watch.
Families should understand their school’s sick policy for several reasons:
- First, by identifying possible symptoms of COVID-19, your family can begin the CDC’s recommended isolation protocol immediately.
- Second, recognizing illness and keeping children home prevents exposure, increasing the likelihood that schools can continue in-person instruction.
- Third, understanding the sick policy will help families determine when to get tested, which can help public health experts understand the virus and keep communities safe.
What about a COVID exposure at school? If you are quarantining yourself or a child due to exposure, remember, you can't "test out" of quarantine and must stay at home for the full 14 days. If you choose to get tested and test positive for COVID-19, you should begin a new 10 day isolation period.
My overall advice – any time you think your child is getting sick, keep them home from school. Get a flu shot. Be patient and give a lot of grace to your children, friends, neighbors and yourselves during this time. Send kind notes of appreciation to the teachers, administrators and staff who are working diligently to protect and educate your children. Wear masks in your community to help keep rates of COVID-19 low. And, as always, reach out to your health care provider if you have concerns about your child’s physical, mental or educational health.