Common childhood illnesses are, well, common

November 22, 2015 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

When my daughter was in fourth grade, she had lice. There, I said it. That was eight years ago.

The fact is that every family deals with common childhood illnesses. Some illnesses have more of a public stigma than others, and that stigma along with misconceptions about the illness often lead to parent confusion, improper treatment and unnecessary sick days from school.

Lice, pink eye, fever, nausea, vomiting… the school nurse sees these types of illness every day. The tricky part comes in the diagnosis, because as we know, things are not always as they appear. School districts’ medical staff will speak with students, ask questions and conduct a preliminary examination.

“We take every student on a case by case basis,” Monroe-Woodbury Central School District K-12 Health Coordinator Dr. Lisa Sassi said. “Our primary goal is to keep our students in school, but they can’t learn if they aren’t feeling well or are uncomfortable. We do our best to help and get them back to class. If we feel they need further care, we contact parents or guardians.”

That process is the same, whether it is pink eye, stomach issues, a fever, or other “acceptable” common illnesses. However, there is one common illness that requires a closer look, and is considered a four letter word by many-LICE.

Lice are a nuisance, but that’s all

Perhaps the biggest misconception about lice is that families need to turn their house upside down when they discover their child has lice. Fact: Lice don’t fly and they do not live long off of a person’s head.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), 6 to 12 million school-age children get head lice every year. Close, head-to-head contact is the primary way head lice are spread. It has nothing to do with poor hygiene or an unclean home environment.

“Lice are a nuisance, but they won’t hurt you and they don’t cause illness,” Dr. Sassi said. “Sure, we want proactive parents who check their children’s hair if they have a cause for concern, but we don’t want students missing school because of a nit in their hair.”

According to Christine Ricker, assistant principal at Smith Clove Elementary School in Central Valley, the highest priority is to have children in attendance as much as possible so they are not missing important instruction time.

“The safety of our children is always paramount, but common illnesses, such as lice, are things we can typically manage, so we want our students in school,” Ricker said.

In an attempt to keep children in school, the AAP and the National Association of School Nurses (NASN) fought to change their attendance policy for students diagnosed with live head lice. They now say that students do not need to be sent home early from school; but recommend that they can go home at the end of the day, be treated, and return to class after appropriate treatment has begun.

However, Dr. Sassi says that school districts have to make their own decisions based on district policies and philosophies. For example, students in Monroe-Woodbury are asked to stay home until there are no more live lice.

Making sure students are ready to learn

Dr. Sassi reinforces that communication between the school and parents is essential when dealing with most common childhood illnesses; parents need to understand their role in prevention and the school district’s role as a resource and support system.

The Orange County Department of Health Epidemiologist Jackie Lawler, who studies communicable diseases and absenteeism in school districts, emphasizes that common sense often goes hand in hand with common illnesses. With more parents working outside the home, Lawler recognizes that finding care for at-home children who are ill is not often easy, but emphasizes that a sick child needs proper time to heal.

“We often see parents who simply give their children Tylenol and send them off to school. Kids with fevers are just not ready to be in school,” Lawler said. “We encourage parents to make sure their children are fever-free for 24 hours without medicine.

Lawler said his department also urges parents to make sure their children are up to date on vaccinations.

“We are seeing an increase in pertussis (whooping cough) and chicken pox throughout Orange County. These are things that can be easily prevented with proper vaccinations,” Lawler said.

Parents who wonder when their child is too sick to attend school can check in with their school’s nurse. Most schools have policies in place to guide parents. High fever, a serious cough or uncontrolled vomiting or diarrhea are indications you probably should keep your child home from school. Aside from those symptoms, most doctors say to trust your instincts, but ask yourself a couple questions.

  • Will my child be able to take part in normal school activities?
  • Will my sick child put an unnecessary burden on the teacher?
  • Will my sick child put other children and school staff at risk of contracting the illness?

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Carole Spendley is a public information specialist for Capital Region BOCES. With four children ranging in ages from 20-13, she is the first to say, “been there, done that!” and loves the opportunity to share her experiences with Parent Today readers.

Copyright ©2015 by Parent Today and Capital Region BOCES; Used with permission