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Going to School Sick

Yesterday's story about Stefanie Zaner, an 18-year-old Montgomery County high-school senior who's closing in on a school-career-long perfect attendance record, raised some compelling issues. First, let me say this: I applaud Zaner for her tenacity and dedication. And I especially appreciate that, according to the article, her achievement didn't depend on her having gone to school while sick.

That's particularly remarkable given the fact that the average kid gets between 6 and 10 colds a year; according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 22 million missed school days per year are attributable to the common cold alone, not to mention the myriad other illnesses that can keep a kid in sick bay.

But another student cited in the story reported going to school even though he was so sick he was "puking buckets." I wonder how his classmates -- and their parents -- felt about that.

The question's not just, er, academic: As we continue to contend with a mysterious and unpredictable new strain of influenza, public-health officials caution people who feel ill to stay home so as to avoid spreading the flu virus to others. Is that advice to be ignored when a perfect-attendance record is at stake?

Such matters may be easier to manage when kids are younger than the high-school students in the story. First, few children (or their parents) are likely to be contemplating perfect attendance from the distance of elementary school. (Zaner reports that the goal kind of "snuck up" on her.) And young students are generally subject to their parents' decisions about whether they're sick enough to stay home from school. (Here are the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations about how to decide.)

Once your kid's in high school, though, his or her opinion as to how sick is too sick for school enters the mix. My family dealt with this reality not long ago. Our 10th-grade daughter hadn't missed a day of school since starting middle school, and she has the annual attendance awards to prove it. But the stomach bug that descended on our household over Thanksgiving struck her that Sunday. Come Monday morning, she was desperate to go to school, at least long enough to get through math class.

My husband and I weighed the perfect attendance issue against the obvious downsides to sending our kid to school sick. Since our daughter wasn't actively vomiting or anything, and since she really, really wanted to go, we allowed her to, with the agreement that she would call home if she ended up feeling unable to make it through the day. School started at 7:30. The call came at 8:30. She spent the rest of the day in bed.

The school docked her a half-day's attendance, so last week, for the first time, she left the end-of-year awards night without a medal for perfect attendance.

I can't tell you what a relief that was. With the perfect-attendance pressure off, decisions about her going to school sick will be, I hope, more cut and dried.

What's your take on this perfect attendance/staying home when sick dilemma? Vote in today's poll -- and please comment below.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  May 27, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health , Teens  
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As an elementary school teacher, I loathe when kids are sent to school who are obviously sick. There are definitely parents out there that are already eyeing that prefect attendance record, whether it's for the year, or ultimately a their kid's entire school career. The students are unable to concentrate on learning, and you can practically see the germs spreading. Often times they have to leave school to go home early in the day, disrupting class for everyone. The high school that my kids will eventually attend has a policy that seniors who miss fewer than two days may skip taking finals. There are no exceptions to this, and as a result kids are coming to school sick as dogs, and some are even postponing surgeries until after graduation. I sometimes wish there was less of an emphasis on attendance.

Posted by: kacd | May 27, 2009 9:40 AM | Report abuse

From the opposite perspective as a teacher, I go in unless I am literally unable to get out of bed. It's way too much trouble to get things together for a sub and then you've got to take care of all the other details (mop-up) after the sub is there....

Posted by: annwhite1 | May 27, 2009 9:46 AM | Report abuse

I agree that as a teacher I go in when I'm sick. However, and this may be splitting hairs, I'm pretty sure I am much better than my students about washing hands, and covering my nose and mouth when I cough or sneeze.

Posted by: kacd | May 27, 2009 10:41 AM | Report abuse

KACD, consider it from the perspective of the parent who has to stay home with a kid who has a cold. In a situation where, if the parent doesn't go to work they don't get paid, what would you do? Yeah, you help prevent a cold from spreading, but who's going to help pay the rent from the paycheck that you got docked?

Posted by: mssnatchquatch | May 27, 2009 11:35 AM | Report abuse

I am the mother of Howard County student who will graduate tomorrow w/13 years perfect attendance but who was not mentioned in yesterday's article...

Despite the stated national averages, she has been sick twice in those 13 years, once in middle school starting 1/2 hour after the start of spring break and once senior year over spring break. She went back to school still drained (she'd lost 10 pounds in 5 days) but (I felt) no longer contagious.

As a nurse, I've had to balance my own illnesses vs pt's safety and going in sick vs dangerously low staff more than once. It's a tough call from the adult perspective.

From the student angle, I do feel it that a very ill child should not be in school for all the reasons stated above by the OP. What's the point? Then again,I joked a few times this past year that I would carry my daughter in to school and plop her at her desk if need be to finish the streak. Thankfully it didn't come to that.

As for the poll, I answered maybe. And as for the young man who was "puking buckets" I would ask "why?" I've sent a child to school after a session of vomitting if I figured it was just too much food...and with my boys that's happened.

But even if he was really, really sick - do you know how strongly schools DEMAND that all students come to school on a standardized test day? I remember many a year when my children's schools started pounding it in from day one that everyone MUST be in school for certain test dates - to be absent would mean a lowed rank/score/percentage for the school. Perhaps the young man in the article had been listening to a similar message at his school. I would cut him and his mom some slack.

BTW, Howard County has figured out a way to decrease this problem. It seems they no longer offer any accolades/awards for perfect attendance. I had to press very hard to get a 10 second mention of her accomplishment. Award? Not a chance. Now there's a message that kids need to hear - school attendance just isn't that important any more.

Posted by: Smitty61 | May 27, 2009 11:53 AM | Report abuse

One of the things schools should be teaching is basic public hygiene, to include the moral obligation not to come to school sick.

It's repugnant that schools are offering incentives and awards to students for behavior that spreads contagious diseases.

On another level, it's sad that schools formally reward kids "just for showing up." This sets up ridiculously low expectations. If we give awards for not being a truant, should we also give awards for not being a felon?

Posted by: DupontJay | May 27, 2009 12:14 PM | Report abuse

If the child is noticeably ill, then they are sick enough to not be receptive to learning anything that day. So they may as well be kept home.

If a child is contagious, they should be kept home. Sending a contagious child into the population is socially reprehensible. If I were not a parent and introduced a contagious disease into a school I would be labeled a terrorist employing a biological attack and be prosecuted for felony endagerment. I have better things to do than stare a crowbars waiting for my next waterboarding session.

If you are sick, and your job gives you paid sick time off, use it. They are paying you to help keep their workforce healthy. If your job does not give paid sick time, then definately come in and spend as much time as possible around your supervisor or manager. Your health is of no value to them.

Posted by: mhoust | May 27, 2009 12:43 PM | Report abuse

This fascination with perfect attendance records really is a tragic indictment of the American educational system. So the kid showed up every day - how should that entitle them to skip finals (see comment above)? People confuse showing up with performance, an often serious mistake.

I hated when people showed up to school sick just to see if they could weather the infection for the entire school day. Even when students only were at school for an hour or two, it often infected others and forced their parents to make the same decision.

Here's a radical idea - if your kid is sick, keep him/her home. Allowing exogenous factors into the calculation blurs judgment and defies reason. Nothing besides the health and safety of the child should be considered.

Posted by: Christopherjhan | May 27, 2009 2:30 PM | Report abuse

I just found this video on You Tube that really shows how germs and viruses spread. It is so cool. It's meant for kids but I even learned a lot!

Posted by: breehill9 | May 28, 2009 12:34 AM | Report abuse

A perfect-attendance record is not that big a deal. Seriously. Please stay home when you are contagious. Future employers won't care that you never missed a day of school.

Posted by: Diner65 | May 28, 2009 11:28 AM | Report abuse

I can't get over the kid who was bragging about going to school even though he was "puking buckets". That is just SELFISH and inconsiderate. He could have gotten a classmate very sick. Maybe he's healthy enough to get over an illness after a day or two but what about classmates who might have health problems? A minor illness might set one child back a day or two but another child might end up being sick for weeks. So a child with a weaker immune system might end up missing weeks of school just so another kid can fulfill a silly goal. Okay, I could understand going to school if you just have a minor stomach ache but if you're puking, running a fever, or coughing up stuff then you should STAY HOME.

As for the main girl in the article she just seems to be lucky enough to have a really good immune system and to never have had a death in the family or any other tragedy. Sure it's nice that these kids work hard but they've also been LUCKY enough to never have experienced a death in the family, serious illness, or some other hardship. So we're rewarding kids for having led sheltered lives free of tragedy?

Posted by: sgg1 | May 29, 2009 10:09 AM | Report abuse

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