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Your child has the sniffles. Is that too sick for school in COVID era?
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A Chestnut Mountain Creative School of Inquiry student visits school nurse Shaunda Harper at the school's clinic Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021, in Flowery Branch. - photo by Scott Rogers

Your child has the sniffles or a temperature just above normal. Should you send them to school? 

There are no hard-and-fast answers, school health officials say, but it is best to “err on the side of caution” and, above all, communicate with your campus nurse and your physician. 

“We usually get to know the parents and their kids very well,” said Shaunda Harper, the registered nurse at Chestnut Mountain Creative School of Inquiry. “We have a really good relationship with most of our parents here, and we communicate with them on a regular basis.” 

Dawn Wales, health service coordinator for Gainesville City Schools, echoed those sentiments, saying parents should be “communicating with the school nurse if their child is sick so they can advise them on what the next steps would be.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, parents might have nudged a sick kid to school, and staff might have encouraged that student to push through the day. But with the coronavirus still looming large and the flu season right around the corner, parents and school staff are more cautious than ever. 

The sniffles alone may not be grounds for keeping a child out of school, Harper said, but other symptoms might. Symptoms to watch out for include a fever of 100.4 or greater, a persistent cough, difficulty breathing, fatigue and a loss of taste or smell. You can find the Hall County’s Send Home Criteria on its website, and health guidance for Gainesville on its website

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Chestnut Mountain Creative School of Inquiry nurse Shaunda Harper prepares to disinfect a patient bed Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021, inside the school clinic at the elementary school in Flowery Branch. - photo by Scott Rogers

One problem, though, is that some kids “don’t complain a lot,” Harper said. A good benchmark to decide whether a child is well enough to attend school is to observe whether they are acting like themselves. “You hear that a lot, ‘They’re just not acting quite their self,” she said. 

Harper said she usually sees an uptick in the number of sick students starting in October and usually running through January. 

Hall County schools now have separate waiting rooms for students with COVID-like symptoms so they don’t come into contact with, say, a student taking his asthma medication. Schools also have separate doors through which students can exit in an effort to limit contact as much as possible. 

“It's our job to keep other kids well more so now than ever,” said Chestnut Principal Betsy Ainsworth. 

And in an increasingly virtual world, sick students are not resigned to stagnation or falling behind. They can often keep up with their classes online until they return to school. 

Hall County students are permitted five excused absences, but attendance policies are more lenient now, Ainsworth said. A doctor’s note is not required. Parents can write an excusal letter themselves. 

Since the start of the pandemic, parents have been calling the school much more often with questions about their child’s wellness, Harper said. She noted that all school nurses in the Hall County School District are licensed and spoke to the importance of that expertise. 

School nurses also receive regular updates from Andrea Williamson-English, lead nurse for the district. She educates them on a weekly basis about relevant health data, and frequently brings in speakers from the Department of Public Health and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Harper said. 

“They're constantly sending out information and documents,” she said. 

Gainesville will be offering flu shots during afterschool hours at various schools from Oct. 18 to Oct. 27. The shot is free for uninsured families and most state insurance plans, except TriCare, Kaiser or Humana. Otherwise, the cost is $30. Bring an insurance card and ID. 

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A Chestnut Mountain Creative School of Inquiry student stops by the school's clinic Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021, to visit nurse Shaunda Harper. - photo by Scott Rogers