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When Can A Child Go Back To School After Being Sick? Doctors Explain

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One of the biggest messages we've been given as our kids return to school this year is that if they are ill in any way, do not send them to school. That's easy enough to understand, but when can a sick child return to school? What are the measures that you need to take before you can send them back? From tiny sniffles to diarrhea or vomiting, there is so much uncertainty with the coronavirus pandemic, that it's hard to figure out just how many days your child will miss school because of a cold.

The problem is twofold. One, schools are grappling with mixed messages from the government as to what are appropriate metrics that children should meet before returning to school. Second, states and agencies have a backlog of COVID tests that dramatically slows the entire process. Therefore, there is some gray area between the school, the parents, and the children's medical providers as to how and when kids can safely return. But there are a few guidelines most physicians I spoke with agreed upon. That is, if children are showing symptoms of almost anything, they need to stay home.

Natasha Bhuyan, MD, Medical Director West Coast for One Medical tells Romper, "This year, it’s critical now more than ever that children with any symptoms stay at home. This includes fatigue, fever, shortness of breath, cough, nasal congestion, loss of taste/smell — even headaches, vomiting, or diarrhea. All of those symptoms could indicate a COVID infection."

Pediatric emergency medical physician Sylvia Owusu-Ansah MD, MPH agrees, telling Romper, "Children should not be sent back to school if they are sick until their fever has completely resolved without use of anti-fever medication for at least 24 to 48 hours, and their vomiting and/or diarrhea has completely resolved." Additionally, she adds that you should not allow your child to go to school with even a small, most-likely-harmless cough. (As we all have in the years before COVID.)

But how do you know when your recently sick kid can return to school if their symptoms have resolved? Do they need a COVID test? Danelle Fisher, MD, FAAP, pediatrician and vice chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California tells Romper that she believes a COVID test should be performed on a child with symptoms of a cold, even if you think it's nothing and your child just has the sniffles.

"This is not our typical year, and we cannot exclude COVID in this situation," Fisher says. We are all just trying to do our best, and this year, that means that we are protecting each other. By staying home, we are helping to keep the virus from ravaging our families and our communities any further.

Any symptoms of any illness — keep your kids home. Get the COVID test, and talk to your children's school and pediatrician to determine when they are permitted to go back. Different schools and nurses might have different guidelines depending on class size and what the social distancing looks like in the building. But your child needs to be symptom-free, fever-free, and possibly have a COVID test. I know that it really, really sucks, and that it's especially hard for lower income communities and children and families who are people of color. It's astonishingly unfair, and it is my fervent hope that all of this improves so that families have more and better options sooner rather than later.