Early in the morning on a Thursday in late September, I rolled my eyes as yet another kid sneezed on one of my first graders. Each day, as we trudge through the tiled hallways, runny noses and uncovered coughs greet us. Normally, I think nothing of it. Another virus, another weekend with my kids sniffling and miserable. (They always get sick on the weekends. I assume it’s because they hate fun.)

But this day, an e-mail from one of my children’s teachers caught my eye. “We’ve had four cases of strep throat in our class in the last week. If your child complains of a sore throat, please take precaution and make sure they don’t have strep throat before sending them back to school. Hopefully we can stop it before it reaches everyone in the class!”

My first reaction was why are people sending their children to school with strep throat? I understand the occasional parental misdiagnosis, or symptoms developing after drop-off, but four times in a week? Why are parents sending their children to school sick? Does it stem from the school policies for absenteeism?

In our county, students are allowed up to five unexcused absences a month, or 15 within 90 days before they are considered truant, which is when the school system can keep a child back a grade or enlist government help. Parents can write up to six notes for their kids to excuse them, after that, the notes need to come from medical professionals.

This is pretty standard for the whole of the United States, and while it may lead to a lot of lying and teaching our children to lie (how many grandmothers have died so kids can go to Disney World, I wonder), it can’t really be the school absentee policy that’s guiding the bacteria-covered hand of the well-meaning parents who send their kids to school with the norovirus or whatever else.
The true root of the problem, I believe, is two-tiered.

First, in our school system, if a child is absent, whether or not the parents have called or dropped off a note, the family gets an automated phone call stating their child has an unexcused absence for that day. This is well-intentioned and stems from reports where absenteeism is correlated with poor test scores, something school systems cannot afford these days. One of those reports stated that “5 to 7.5 million U.S. students miss nearly a month of school.” That sounds bad, but really, we’re looking at 20 days of illness, injury, family death, or general emergencies spread throughout nine months—that averages to just a couple days a month. Rather than a scary statistic, I’d say that sounds about right. Things go wrong.

The majority of the issue, though, stems not from school sick leave policies, but work leave policies. The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that two out of five American workers do not get paid sick leave in the private sector, meaning they have to choose between their health or their paychecks. Those who do get scheduled time off for unexpected illness are still expected to come to work when their children are sick, meaning they have to find emergency child care, which is not an easy task when asking someone to watch a sick child last minute.

Not to mention, it is almost palpably discouraged to stay home sick from work, even if a worker has paid sick days. In fact, a Staples survey in 2013 reported that 90 percent of workers go in when they’re ill and contagious. We need to implement governmental or employment-based controls for public health, providing workers sick days and providing parents emergency care or more lenient sick leave that includes families. If we don’t, one cold or flu can spread within just a few hours, and then the problem is more than the healthy workers feeling like they have to shoulder more of the load a few days one particular week.

Janel Copeland, a mother in Georgia, said when she was in the food service business, she spent several weeks battling a cold she couldn’t fight off because she couldn’t take time off. “I’d tell you what it was like, but mostly what I remember is feverishly coughing until I spat up … in the mop sink in between making people delicious lattes,” she said.

Emily Abbott, also from Georgia, said she needed her pay more than her health, but that her workplace was as understanding as they could be, though her story is almost laughable. “I fell asleep on a stack of mop heads one time while washing dishes. They let me hide in the back so I didn’t infect everyone and everything.”

We’re facing a huge problem. Not only are we forcing ourselves into our jobs when we’re likely to spread disease, out of fear of workplace retribution, but we are also teaching our children to do the same thing. From the time they are 5 and 6 years old, we are dragging them to school because we can’t take time off, and showing them that it is okay, even preferable, to spread germs to other people, rather than put the health of themselves and others above work and school responsibilities. Not only this, but our children are making memories of us crawling out of bed with watery eyes and sneezy noses and shuffling off to work, and that sets an example for them to do the same as they grow into adults themselves.

As we come into flu season, and are all scared out of our minds about Ebola and enterovirus 68 and other infectious diseases hitting closer and closer to home, maybe we should take some responsibility for how we spread these viruses.

Our social infrastructure needs to change as well. People cannot continue to have to choose between their job security, their school success and their health. People shouldn’t have to be scared to be sick.

Darlena Cunha is a freelance writer. She blogs at Parentwin and can be reached on Twitter @parentwin.

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