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This Flu Season, Parents Need to Keep Sick Kids Out of School

When kids are sick it’s important to keep them from getting other kids sick. That means keeping them home. It’s not easy, but it’s the moral choice.

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At midnight, my wife and I started playing a game of fever-chicken. Our son had come into our bedroom, coughing and whining in a froggy voice. We took his temperature. The thermometer read 99.3. It wasn’t, technically, a fever. And we hoped it wouldn’t become a fever because sick days are — as every parent knows — a massive inconvenience. Stress, disrupted work schedules, and general disorder are the side effects of the American sick day. Still, this morning I made the call and the kid stayed home. It was a bit of a borderline case, but if I know any one thing it is this: Sending a sick kid to school is irresponsible, unethical, and generally dickish behavior.

Here’s something fun about siblings. They don’t want to share anything, but they always work it out with viruses. That meant that, come morning, I had two sick kids. Naturally, my wife and I immediately began our sick-day negotiation. Which one of us could call off work to help the boys? Who would make the call to the school? Could someone make a supply run for soup and crackers before going in? It’s a lot to deal with over the first cup of coffee.

I’ll openly admit that I don’t care for that negotiation because I’m totally sympathetic to parents who send sick kids to school because they have no other choice. It happens and it is understandable. What I can’t countenance is folks sending sick kids to school even though they don’t need to do so. That’s brutal behavior — and not just because of the message it sends the kid. Every parent associated with every school is responsible on some level for the health of every kids attending that school. Shirking that responsibility means risking other people’s time (and often money) for the sake of your convenience. And, make no mistake, this flu season a large number of parents will do exactly that. These people (not low-income parents) should be ostracized.

Yes, it would be nice if government officials and employers worked together to create family-friendly policies that would allow parents to not stress out about staying home with kids. But we simply don’t live in the country. We live in a country where employers are free to treat employees with shockingly little care. So some of us end up lucky and others don’t. There’s little logic to it.

I’ll admit that the decision to keep kids home is likely easier for my wife and me than many dual income parents. The fact that I work from home helps the situation a great deal. Granted, the work slows down significantly in between pushing fluids, administering cough medicine, and making toast, but at least the core of my schedule doesn’t need to change all that much. So that’s my privilege, which comes with a responsibility.

How does that responsibility manifest? Come flu season, I do not screw around.

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By keeping my kids home when they’re sick, I can only hope that I’m sending a message to my fellow parents to do the same. (I like to find ways to bring sick days up in conversation with other parents. I don’t shout, “Hint! Hint!” But I would consider it if I thought it would be efficacious). My hope is that my behavior is contagious. And if that sounds self-righteous, so be it. This is one thing that I’m definitely right about. And here’s another: If parents collectively get better about taking these days and communicating with their employers, new caregiving policies will likely follow.

Human resources can’t make my kid feel better, but they can make it easier for me to help my kid feel better. And that’s in everybody’s long-term financial and personal interest.

As I finish writing this, I’m also listening to my kids cough in the next room and tracking the minutes to the next dose of medication. I am fully aware that nobody is pleased about the way the day is going. My kids feel like crap. I don’t feel great. There are a lot of overlapping deadlines and my wife is sitting in her office across town worrying about all three of us. But there is one bright spot in all of this: I know I’m doing the right thing by containing the sickness. And for any parent who objects to my tone, I can only offer the spittle-covered immortal words of Jack Nicholson.

You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.