As a parent, I learned early that it’s not so easy to determine when a child’s sick enough to stay home from school. Sure, a high fever is a no-brainer. Ditto with vomiting. But what about the sore throat without a fever? What about the “really bad headache” or the queasy stomach that may or may not result in a rushed trip to the bathroom?
Over time, I’ve developed the motherly gut instinct that tells me when we’re dealing with a nervous gut and when we’re dealing with one about to be spilled. I’ve learned to say things like “If you stay home, you absolutely cannot play with any friends today, even if you’re feeling a lot better” and “OK, but you have to go to the doctor’s to be checked.” To be honest, though, I don’t particularly love to pay a $25 co-pay so that my doctor can say, “Yes, your child has a tummy ache.” My doctor probably doesn’t need to find time on her schedule for a minor inconvenience, either.
My mom had no such qualms. She sent us to school unless we were Really Sick. Maybe that’s why I’m a bit more lenient with my kids. I know how crummy it is to sit through class when your head feels as if it’s filled with rubber cement. I believe that a day of lying low can knock out a cold that might normally last for a week if you try to keep up with your routine. Plus, there’s the whole “don’t infect other kids” thing. I appreciate when other parents keep their kinda sick kids home, and I try to repay the favor.
That’s why our school system’s latest absentee policy has thrown me into a tizzy. If I understand it correctly, the new policy states that after seven unexcused absences, you get a sit down with the school nurse. After 12, you’re meeting with a prosecutor type. Sure, seven sounds like a generous policy. But unless you have a doctor’s note, almost every absence is unexcused. If your child is home for a couple of days with a sore throat that never progresses to strep, she’s unexcused. I don’t know about you, but I don’t typically run to the doctor when my child has a stomach flu or a sore throat with a low-grade fever. I keep her home, give her Gatorade for a day or two and send her back to school. Two more unexcused absences.
I’ll admit it. School nurses frighten me. No one seems to wield more power in the halls of education than the school nurse. Granted, I love the elementary school nurse. She knows our kids, knows which ones need to be sent home as soon as they admit something is wrong and which ones just need a hug. But the middle school nurse doesn’t know my older kid. She doesn’t know me. And she thinks the absentee policy is a great idea. After all, she says, adults don’t stay home from work for every sniffle. (Frankly, I’d appreciate it if more adults did stay home for the sniffles instead of coming in and sniffling on everyone else. But I digress.)
I understand the fine line that school officials must walk. I understand that excessive absenteeism can cut into the school’s efficiency, not to mention the government funds. But I also believe that our educational professionals are capable of discerning between a true truant and a child who’s lost the virus lottery this year. I believe that a child with five absences and slipping grades might be better served by a conference than the child with 12 absences who’s managed to keep on top of her schoolwork.
Mostly, I believe that parental involvement is key to a successful school experience. I believe schools should not undermine the parents’ authority to decide when their kids are sick and when they should go to school. Yes, if a pattern is developing or the child’s grades are slipping, by all means involve the parents. But I hope they also consider respecting the parents. My kids’ education is going to be a lot better if we’re working together, not fighting over whether a sore throat is a legitimate reason to stay home. We’re in this together.