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When to keep sick kids home

A little tickle in the throat. A slight fever. An unexplained rash. Is it really enough to keep your child home from school?

School officials say, "If in doubt, leave them out.''

Public schools follow state and federal guidelines to determine what illnesses should keep a child home, said Wilma Steiner, district director for Comprehensive Health Services for Miami-Dade Schools.

WHEN TO STAY HOME

  • Fever. Child should be fever-free for 24 hours before returning to school.
  • Vomiting or diarrhea. Child should be symptom-free for 24 hours.
  • Excessive cold or flu symptoms such as heavy coughing or a runny nose with yellow or

    green discharge.
  • An undiagnosed rash.
  • Pain, dizziness, discomfort or anything that interferes with daily activities.
  • In general, that means students should be free of symptoms such as fever, vomiting or diarrhea for 24 hours before returning to the classroom.

    "We don't want to give the message that any time you have a little ache you should stay home,'' she said. "But we're all in closed buildings. We're all breathing the same air, spreading things around to each other. If you're child is really ill, keep the child home.''

    For many working parents, the decision to keep a child home may have its own consequences. An unexpected sick day could even jeopardize some jobs.

    The only answer for some is to pump the child with Tylenol and send them to class, said Stefanie Falk of Davie, who has seen the struggles parents face from both sides.

    A teacher at Hollywood Hills Elementary with elementary school-age children of her own, Falk said she and her husband juggle child-care duties if someone is sick. As a reading resource teacher for at-risk kids, Falk said she feels it's important for her to be at work, so her husband often bears the greater sick-child burden.

    "If I'm not at school, the kids I teach don't get services that day, and that makes me feel really bad,'' she said.

    Falk said she often sees parents sending sick kids to school, because it would jeopardize their job to take the day off to keep them home.

    "There definitely are parents out there who give their kids medicine and send them off to school,'' she said. "They know the worst-case scenario is that the child will sit in the office all day.''

    That's why working parents should have a sick day plan, school officials say.

    When Bill and Mai Walker moved their family from Michigan to Cooper City in January, they left behind extended family who pitched in on sick days. So when Andrew, 5, was feeling poorly at his new school a few weeks later, Daddy got the call to pick him up.

    "Before we moved down here, when we had equal vacation and sick time, we pretty much alternated'' in tending to Andrew or 13-year-old Amanda, said Bill Walker, an information technology manager who transferred to Miami in November 2007.

    But Mai's new job as a buyer in Opa-locka doesn't include sick time or personal leave until next year.

    "If one of the kids has to stay home - it's pretty much me,'' Bill Walker said.

    According to the National Association for Sick Child Daycare, each day more than 350,000 children 13 and younger with both parents working are too sick to attend school or child care. Working parents are absent from their jobs from 5 to 29 days a year caring for ill children.

    In a perfect world, said Maureen O'Keeffe, registered nurse and clinical nursing supervisor for Broward County schools, a parent would always be available to stay home with a sick child. But the reality is that parents need to make alternate arrangements before they are needed.

    Mary and George Petrosky of Doral, both engineers at the same company, said they have an organized support network in case Erik, 7, or Alisha, 5, falls ill.

    Mary Petrosky said she has an emergency sitter she can call in the morning if one of the kids wakes up sick, plus a network of neighbors who pitch in for each other.

    Working for the same company also makes it easier to juggle duties when one of their kids is sick, Mary said. If George leaves early to care for a sick child, he'll return to work after Mary comes home.

    Another plus is that their home, office and pediatrician are all within about a mile of each other, Mary Petrosky said.

    "That's one of the most critical things for working parents: being as close to school as possible,'' she said.

    To keep the spread of illness in check, school systems try to educate the community about prevention, O'Keeffe said.

    "Kids need to know the importance of covering their mouth and nose when they sneeze,''

    she said. "Parents should know if their child has the sniffles, to send tissues with them.''

    Children should be taught to avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands, and to avoid close contact with anyone who is ill.

    "Hand washing is the best prevention for many illnesses,'' O'Keeffe said.

    If a child is feeling under the weather, Florida public schools have strict policies regarding medicine - even over-the-counter treatments. An authorization form must be completed by a doctor and parent, and all medicine is locked up and administered by a staff member.

    "You can't just put some medicine in their book bag and say, "Take this if you feel bad,'‚'' O'Keeffe said.

    SICK KIDS DAYCARE

    A valuable resource for working parents is sick kids daycare, such as the center offered at Memorial Hospital Pembroke, 7800 Sheridan St., Pembroke Pines. Open weekdays from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., the daycare is open to children from 6 months to 12 years old. The cost is $35 a day, which includes meals.

    Children with common colds, a low-grade fever and tummy aches are welcome, but those with highly contagious diseases such as pink eye, lice or rotavirus are not allowed.

    Director Judy Frum said the center is staffed by nurses aides "who practice really good infection control, such as hand-washing and wiping down surfaces." Parents are invited to visit and preregister children before there is a need.

    A call to the center for reservations is required before a child is admitted. No drop-ins. Call 954-963-8434.

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