As a parent of a child in the Poplar Bluff R-1 School District, I have always had concerns about some policies that seem to promote school attendance for sick children. The recent swine flu epidemic has prompted me to express my concerns publicly. As of today, 430 schools in the US have closed. Our government is recommending any school with confirmed cases stay closed for at least 14 days because children can be contagious for 7 – 10 days. The CDC is advocating standard, common sense precautions in order to stop the spread of the disease. Per the director of the CDC, “If your children are sick, have a fever and flu-like illness, they shouldn’t go to school.” Maybe if more people followed this advice, we wouldn’t have to close schools in the first place.
Although it doesn’t appear that the swine flu is presently as big a threat as originally feared, we still do not know if it may change and come back in the fall as a more potent virus. What many people don’t realize, however, is that regular influenza kills an estimated 36,000 people each year in the US. So regardless of whether it is the swine flu, regular flu, or some new yet unknown germ, shouldn’t our school system want to prevent the spread of all contagious diseases?
While the Poplar Bluff School System may not realize it is inviting sick kids to come to school, it is. At the Senior High School, students who miss no school days are exempt from taking cumulative finals. Missing even a partial day or being checked out for a doctor’s appointment means they have to take finals. For this reason, kids want to attend at all costs. I know of numerous instances where students with influenza, gastrointestinal illnesses, bronchitis, etc. have attended school feeling absolutely horrible and knowing they are contagious, but going ahead because they are desperate to avoid finals. These are good kids who beg their parents to let them go to school. Their argument is basically, “Why should I stay home and be penalized when no one else does, and that is why I am sick in the first place!” It makes it very hard for parents who know that keeping their sick child home is going to create tremendous pressure and stress on them later in the year. (My personal opinion is that our high school should prepare our kids for college. This includes teaching them how to study for cumulative finals. Perhaps freshmen could be coached all year long and given mock finals. Then, finals could be required for sophomores on up. Exempting students from such tests is not doing them any favor in the long run. If they were adequately prepared and all students took them, the stress and pressure would be dramatically reduced. I guess this is another subject altogether, I digress…)
Other schools in the R-1 District encourage attendance by sick children via “perfect attendance” awards and monetary rewards given to summer school students who do not miss. I know of one third grader who went to school quite ill just so she wouldn’t lose her perfect attendance award. Her parents allowed it because the award was seen as so valuable to them. In terms of summer school kids, there are many parents in our area who really need an extra $50 right now. Asking them to choose between the money or keeping their child home puts them in a very difficult position.
I do realize that our school system gets more money when more students attend and I realize that we need programs to encourage attendance. However, it may be that these current policies actually worsen attendance. When one sick child attends school, they may infect their entire class. Their classmates may be the ones who stay home. Would it not be better if that one sick child stayed home in the first place? What it boils down to for me is that the health of our kids should be of primary importance to our school system. We know the “common sense” policy to keep healthy is to encourage kids to stay home when they are sick. At the present time, Poplar Bluff Schools are not doing that and that needs to change. Surely our school administration, educators, and parents can come up with some alternative policies to encourage attendance which do not penalize students for illness.