By Jody Steinberg

Schools can provide help when a child becomes ill, but nurses say the best place for a sick child is at home. This clinic is at Ashford Park Elementary School in Brookhaven.

We’ve all had it happen. A busy morning, a fully-scheduled day, and a child who drags herself to the table 10 minutes late complaining of a headache or sore throat – but she wants to go to school anyway to maintain her perfect attendance record.

What do you do? Send her to school and you might get a phone call in an hour to pick her up. Keep her home and your day is shot. Decide in five minutes or everyone will be late.

How do you know whether to keep a child home from school, take them to the doctor or give them a pep talk and send them to school?

Keeping sick kids home is key to containing a virus or communicable disease, say Lynne Meadows, RN, MS; Student Health Services Coordinator for Fulton County Schools and Jayketa Singleton, RN, Health Services Coordinator for Atlanta Public Schools. Schools urge parents to know what constitutes a “stay away” diagnosis: temperature over 100.3, vomiting, diarrhea, oozing sores or crawling lice top the list.

“It starts with every individual student,” Meadows said. “If they are too sick, it’s just best to stay home. It behooves everybody to follow guidelines so the student can get well and so other students can stay healthy.”

That’s one reason that schools are moving away from rewarding children for perfect attendance, she adds.

“Just because you gave them Tylenol, they’ll still have to go home when it wears off,” says Singleton. “Send them to school with a fever and they’ll infect everyone else.”

While Georgia has seen a rise in reported flu cases, metro schools did not register a significant rise in any particular illness this past fall, according to those who monitor our students’ health.

While school boards adopt communicable disease policies for their systems with action plans for widespread illness, it’s up to staff like Singleton and Meadows to work with county health agencies and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to develop and communicate health information to their schools and track and report illness on a daily basis.

“Our data drives lots of decisions,” Meadows said. “We know what to look for, what things are seasonal … If we seem to see these things at this time of year, we say, ‘Let’s get ready for this.’”

So far this year, common illnesses are in check, but the increased frequency – especially in the spring – of one condition scares parents the most: Lice. The tiny, biting bugs migrate from head to head, so a single occurrence that’s not treated thoroughly can become a perpetual problem.

While treatment with lice shampoo can kill all the live bugs and allow a child to return to school immediately, parents must follow up diligently with the tedious task of daily combing for the hard-to-see eggs, called “nits,” that hatch and become new lice. Lice shampoos might enable students to return to school, but they will not solve the problem alone, explains Singleton.

“Lice have gotten resistant to the treatments,” explains Singleton. “Today, they’re called superbugs, and the problem won’t just go away. Parents and schools have to work in partnership to follow up the treatments. As long as someone has nits in the building, you’ll have an ongoing problem. You just need to stay on top of it.”

School nurses and clinic staff are well versed in checking for lice and can help parents monitor and resolve the situation – but not all schools staff clinics throughout the day. Singleton encourages parents to check for lice every Friday to keep the situation at bay.

Teachers and school administrators are not trained to check for lice or determine how sick a child is – nor do they have the time. That’s why, when it comes to health polices, most metro area schools are in agreement: when in doubt, keep them home.