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To Send to School or Keep Home?

Last updated: August 25, 2023

By being aware of common pediatric health conditions and the available health care options, parents can make informed decisions that prioritize their child’s health as well as the well-being of their classmates.

Dr. Abby Smolcich, Pediatrician, ThedaCare Physicians Pediatrics-Darboy

If you’re the parent or guardian of a school-age child, you know the age-old dilemma. Your child wakes up feeling ill or experiencing a new symptom, and you ask yourself: Do I send them to school or keep them home?

“Making this decision requires careful consideration,” says Dr. Abby Smolcich, a Pediatrician with ThedaCare Physicians Pediatrics-Darboy. “Parents should evaluate the symptoms, the child’s overall well-being, and the potential impact to other students and teachers.”

Beyond that, it’s also important to remember that school attendance is vital to kids’ academic success. Therein lies the difficulty in making the right call.

Common Pediatric Health Conditions

The first consideration should be whether the illness is contagious, Dr. Smolcich says. If so, the child should stay home. If not, your child could potentially go to school.

Then there are some conditions in which the source of the symptoms is unknown. In these cases, the answer to whether your child should go to school is, “it depends.” When in doubt, consult a health care provider, Dr. Smolcich says.

Follow these guidelines for some common pediatric health conditions.

Fever: Fever is a common symptom of many illnesses and can indicate an underlying infection. If your child has a temperature of 100.4°F or higher, it is generally recommended to keep them home until they have been fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medications. But if your child is otherwise healthy, some physicians say it’s OK to go to school with a fever as high as 100°F. Consult a health care provider when in doubt.   

Cold and flu: Respiratory illnesses like colds and flu are highly contagious. If your child has a runny nose, persistent cough, sore throat, or body aches, it’s best to keep them home until their symptoms improve.

Stomach issues: Vomiting and diarrhea can be signs of a stomach virus or food poisoning. Children with these symptoms should stay home until they’re symptom-free for at least 24 hours.

Infections: Certain infections, such as strep throat or pink eye (conjunctivitis), require treatment with antibiotics. Pink eye is highly contagious, and your child must be on antibiotics for 24 hours before heading back to school.

Head lice. This is anothercontagious condition that needs immediate treatment. This is especially the case if the child has live lice on their scalp. Children may return to school after treatment with an over-the-counter or prescription lice-killing product.

Allergies: Symptoms of a cough, runny nose, or sore throat can stem from allergies. Knowing your child’s health history will help you better determine the source of these symptoms. If they’re allergy-related, it’s OK to send your child to school.

Tummy aches/headaches: These “aches” are common, but something children can endure while at school. The condition is not a threat to other students, so it’s generally fine to send your child to school. Pediatricians say these symptoms are usually the result of anxiety and will subside. If your child is still strugglingonce at school, however, you should consider bringing them home.

Care Options

If you’re still grappling with decision-making after your own assessment of symptoms, it’s a good idea to seek advice from a health care professional.

Your options include:

Primary care physician: Your child’s primary care physician should be your first point of contact for non-emergency situations. They are familiar with your child’s medical history and can provide appropriate guidance and treatment. Make an appointment if your child’s symptoms persist or worsen after a couple of days of home care. It’s also a good idea to make an appointment if your child has a chronic condition, such as asthma or diabetes, and their symptoms are not well-managed.

Urgent and walk-in care clinics: Urgent and walk-in care clinics are ideal for minor illnesses or injuries that require prompt attention but are not life-threatening. They offer extended hours and provide medical care without an appointment. Care is available for new and existing patients, as well as children 12 months and older. To help reduce your wait time, visit Urgent Care and select “I’m On My Way.”

Emergency department: Visit the emergency department for severe or life-threatening conditions only. These can include difficulty breathing, severe pain, or high fevers accompanied by convulsions. In these situations, call 911 or take your child to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Dr. Smolcich says she knows parents often struggle with making the right call. Education and support can go a long way in guiding decision-making. “By being aware of common pediatric health conditions and the available health care options, parents can make informed decisions that prioritize their child’s health as well as the well-being of their classmates,” she says. “Following these guidelines can help you create a healthier environment for your child’s education and overall development.”

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