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Sick Kid? Stay Home!

Stop shuffling your sniffling tots off to school and spreading their germs to the rest of us.

Here’s a challenge for all of us in Purell Nation: Let’s extend our germophobic behavior to our children and stop sending them to school when they’re sick. At a time when sales of hand sanitizer are growing at a double-digit pace, when the phrase “cough etiquette” has entered the vocabulary of nonmedical personnel, when flu-vaccine shortages lead to panic, you’d think little Olivia and Ethan would get to stay home when they’re not well.

But Marie DeSisto, president of the Massachusetts School Nurse Organization, tells a different story. Not only are her members seeing more students coming in ill than ever before, according to a recent e-mail poll answered by nearly 50 nurses, but if the kids become sick in school (or if the Tylenol that Mom slipped them on the way to the bus wears off), it’s often difficult to get someone to pick them up. “I’ve had to get on the phone with the boss or supervisor and convince them the employee needs to leave work,” she says. And that’s if she can reach the parent. “Sometimes people change jobs and forget to update their emergency information with the school.”

What’s with parents? Many times, their employers. Incredible as it sounds, nearly half of all private-sector workers don’t get a single day of paid sick leave a year. How wrong is that? Dr. George Askew, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization Docs for Tots, sums it up: “It’s immoral to pit parents’ ability to earn a living against their ability to do their job as parents.” And those who are allowed time off fear that actually taking it will send an “I’m not serious about my work” message to the boss. All this, even though allowing a working parent to stay home with a sick child is healthier not only for the feverish one but for all of us. The fewer sneezing kids in class, the fewer classmates who get sick and infect their parents, who go to work and infect their colleagues, who in turn infect their kids, and so on.

But without a team of Nannies Without Borders ready to swoop in, what’s a well-meaning parent to do? For starters, support national and local legislation – similar to last year’s successful San Francisco ballot initiative – that would provide full-time workers seven days of paid sick time per year to care for themselves or a family member (and pro-rated time off for part-timers). Senator Ted Kennedy’s national Healthy Families Act, which he plans to refile by spring and would apply to companies with 15 or more employees, and the statewide Paid Sick Days Act, which would cover Massachusetts employers of any size, would no doubt help the situation – but only up to a point.

It’s not just workers in need of a paycheck who send ill children to school. It’s the stay-at-home mom with the Pilates class she doesn’t want to miss, the executive who’d rather schmooze at the office than spend the day with a whiny child, the self-employed dad who figures that, hey, his kid got sick from some other runny-nosed brat, so why should he be the one to play by the rules? Rules, by the way, that if you ask some parents, are too restrictive, anyway (except when they’re applied to other people’s coughing children). In general, schools require kids to be fever free for 24 hours before returning, prompting creative time-telling on the part of many a stressed parent. The occasional vigilante parent tries to take matters into her own hands, alerting the authorities to a suspiciously flushed child. But the self-appointed sneeze police and eagle-eyed teachers can’t do it alone.

If we’re really going to reduce disease transmission, we need to give well-intentioned mothers and fathers the support they need. That means changing the business and social culture and recognizing that sending an infectious child to school helps spread illness to all of us. And if we don’t care enough about others – even those such as the elderly, who might die from the flu – to inconvenience ourselves, then let’s do it out of self-interest. Because when you’re talking infectious disease, it’s true what they say: What goes around comes around.

Beth Teitell is the Boston-based author of From Here to Maternity: The Education of a Rookie Mom. E-mail her at