What to do if your kid has a COVID-19 symptom

Under two weeks after school started, Savannah Gardiner’s 8-year-old son woke her up at 4 a.m. complaining of an upset stomach, nausea and a sore throat. By the next morning, her two youngest children, ages 3 and 6, had lost their voices.

“They just feel miserable,” said Gardiner, a full-time student and mother of four in Lehi, Utah. “Every family gets sick at the beginning of the school year, but this year is different. You have to second-guess every symptom.”

After spending the summer exchanging worried texts with other parents in the community, Gardiner knew how important it was to safeguard her kids’ classmates against infection. She decided to keep all four children at home.

They attend Kids Village, a private school in the nearby city of Orem, Utah. The school’s precautions during the Covid-19 pandemic include daily temperature checks and mandatory masks.

“You can’t send your kid to school with any symptoms whatsoever, even if it’s allergies, because everyone assumes they’ve got the ‘rona,” said Gardiner. “I think this is just going to be the new normal. We’re going to have to adapt how they’re learning, and how often they’re going to be able to go to school.”

Gardiner did the right thing, according to Crystal Fingulin, school nurse at Glenridge Middle School in Orlando, Florida. Caring for symptomatic kids at home helps ensure they’re healthy, Fingulin said. It’s also one of the most impactful things parents can do to keep the school year running smoothly.

“Err on the side of caution,” she said. “If that student is really sick, and they’re sick with Covid, that whole class could be potentially quarantined.”

What happens if your kid gets sick at school?

When it comes to student health, Fingulin relies on guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a special Covid-19 manual created by Orange County Public Schools, where she works.

The school district asks caregivers to keep children home if they’re experiencing any Covid-19 symptoms, which can include fever, cough, shortness of breath and more. If that happens to you, be prepared to keep the child at home for a while.

“They would either have to stay home for 10 days … or they would have to get a negative Covid test to come back,” Fingulin said. That reflects the most recent data from the CDC, which suggests isolation can be discontinued 10 days after the first onset of symptoms.

If a symptom appears at school, the student will be sent to Fingulin’s office.

There, special isolation beds have been set up, kept separate from the “Well Room,” where staff treat injuries unrelated to Covid-19. In case of symptoms, parents must come pick up their children, who are not allowed to return home on the school bus.

“It seems really aggressive,” Fingulin said. “But we don’t want to send a potentially contagious person back to class.”

Allergies, cold or Covid-19?

The widely varied symptoms associated with Covid-19 can make it hard to distinguish the virus from other maladies that circulate in the fall. A table on the CDC website shows significant overlap between the symptoms of Covid-19, colds, influenza, asthma, seasonal allergies and strep throat. That’s a good reason to be cautious.

“Right now, everyone is erring on the side of being super careful,” said Dr. Allison Tothy, a specialist in pediatric emergency medicine at the University of Chicago. “The recommendation is that if your child has a new onset of cold-like symptoms — including runny nose and a cough — that they need to follow up with their pediatrician.”

It’s possible that the pediatrician will recommend a Covid test. “We’re ordering tests for children that present with any or all of the symptoms that go along with Covid,” Tothy said. “The decision really needs to be made in partnership with your pediatrician.”

Fortunately, Tothy noted, time can often provide a bit of clarity. “After a couple of days, what starts as ‘Is this allergies or Covid?’ very quickly will evolve, and you’ll have a better idea of what is going on,” she said.

Coming up with a strategy for caregiving at home

In the meantime, though, you need a plan. Even while caring for a sick child, it’s important to minimize the risk that they will infect other adults and children in the household.

“Until you know what is going on with your child, you should try to avoid close contact if you can,” Tothy said. “Perhaps in your home if you need to be in close contact, you all put on masks until you determine what is wrong.”

You can also manage the spread of germs with careful hand-washing and regular cleaning in the home using disinfectant wipes, spray or bleach. While not everyone has the means to provide a separate bathroom for an ill family member, Tothy said it’s a good idea if you’re able.

It’s also important to keep a close eye on your child’s symptoms. “Most kids will get better,” Tothy said. “But some kids are going to get worse before they get better.”

In the pandemic, Tothy emphasized, it’s important to call a pediatrician if your child is sick at all. Even without the threat of Covid-19, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends contacting a doctor for a fever that persists more than 72 hours in a child age 2 or older. If the fever continues past five days, Tothy said many doctors would consider a more thorough evaluation.

Dehydration can be a serious issue, too: Pay close attention if your child is unable to keep fluids down, has severe diarrhea or gets increasingly tired and weak; decreased urination is another sign of dehydration. (Find more information on evaluating individual symptoms using the American Academy of Pediatrics website.)

The silver lining of staying safe

The overlap between symptoms of Covid-19 and seemingly everything else is a massive headache (which is also a symptom of Covid-19).

But steps taken to fight the pandemic do double duty when it comes to protecting against other infectious diseases. That, in turn, can help weed out the look-alike symptoms that could send kids home from school.

Washing hands, maintaining social distance and wearing masks are essential for limiting the spread of Covid-19, and they’re likely to diminish the spread of seasonal colds, as well. Doctors have seen far fewer colds and illnesses than usual among children who adhered to strict safety measures since last spring, Tothy said.

Wearing a mask, studies also have suggested, can help reduce the spread of influenza, which may have contributed to the relatively mild flu season experienced in the Southern Hemisphere this year.

If the Northern Hemisphere follows suit, as often happens, it would be a welcome reprieve, and likely to save lives.

For that reason, Tothy noted, it’s especially important to get a flu vaccine this year.

“Make sure your children’s vaccinations are up to date, and everyone in the family is getting a flu shot as well,” she said. “Right now, we just have to be extra cautious.”

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