Although her school district started offering in-person classes and hybrid learning options in September 2020, both of Wisner’s children have participated in virtual schooling since the start of the pandemic out of an abundance of caution for their conditions. As a result, like my kids, neither of her children has been sick all year, with anything. “I’ve lost sleep over a lot of things during this pandemic, but not over being up with a sick child or worrying that they’re not breathing properly,” Wisner said.
Abisola Olulade, a family-medicine doctor based in San Diego, says it’s always dangerous when districts send the message that sick children should still come to school, but even more so during a pandemic: “A sniffle is something that can have ripple effects. If a child has mild symptoms and is infected with COVID-19, and they go to school, they could infect other children. If there’s a kid that’s immunocompromised, that could mean death.”
People with chronic respiratory issues, such as moderate to severe asthma, may be at higher risk for getting a severe case of COVID-19, which means a more prolonged course of illness and a greater possibility of getting hospitalized. How children with asthma are specifically affected by a coronavirus infection is still being determined, but COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, and like many respiratory illnesses, it’s considered a possible asthmatic trigger. The virus could also spread from students to family members or teachers, who might be at risk for severe cases. Even when it comes to milder diseases among children who aren’t particularly at risk, attending school while sick has always increased the likelihood of spread, leading to more kids getting sick, and more kids passing illnesses on to their family and community members who could have otherwise stayed healthy.
The fear of punishment for parents or students when kids have too many school absences is compounded by the fact that many parents have limited or no paid sick leave. In April 2020, Congress enacted the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) mandating that families have access to paid sick or family leave during the pandemic to support individuals who need to quarantine, people caring for someone with COVID-19, and caregivers who are faced with school and child-care shutdowns, but it has since expired. As of January, FFCRA pay is optional. Excluding emergency coronavirus provisions, only 13 states and Washington, D.C., have laws requiring employers to provide paid sick-time policies. That means many parents every day face the impossible task of choosing between a paycheck and staying home with their sick child.
Read: The pandemic has parents fleeing from schools—maybe forever
This speaks to a broader problem in American culture, which places a high value on productivity, pushing yourself, and “soldiering through” illness in nearly every line of work. Strict school attendance policies likely result in part from these same norms. But that doesn’t mean school leadership and administrators are not responsible for fueling this cultural ill by instilling these values in a new generation. “It’s not a good message to send to our kids that when they get sick, they should keep going,” Olulade told me. “Humans get sick. It’s okay to take a break. It’s your body telling you to take time to heal itself, and we need to teach our children that.”