Finnegan Brophy went back to school for just two days before being ordered to stay home because of a runny nose.
The six-year-old’s Montreal school said that, under new rules to prevent the spread of COVID-19, he couldn’t return until he was symptom-free for 48 hours, said his mother, Amy Rose.
“It’s just really hard to juggle,” she said. “This is very disruptive, and if it’s going to be every time somebody has a common cold … I don’t know how this is going to work.”
Strict policies barring students from attending school if they have even minor symptoms of illness that could be COVID-19 are causing confusion and chaos for families. Parents who once would have sent a mildly ill child to class after a dose of Tylenol and a hug now have to take time off work or scramble for last-minute child care.
The Alberta government goes so far as to invoke the law when advising parents to keep their children home for at least 10 days if they develop symptoms unrelated to a pre-existing illness or condition, such as a cough, a fever, shortness of breath, a runny nose or a sore throat. Even kids who test negative for COVID-19 must stay home. “Students or staff are legally required to isolate for a minimum of 10 days or until symptoms resolve, whichever takes longer,” said Tom McMillan, a spokesman for Alberta Health. “We are proceeding cautiously to best protect the health of staff and students.”
Public-health experts say that while the new rules may seem extreme, families must do their part to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“All parents are going to have to prepare for a lot more absences than they’re used to, and we’re really going to have to have zero tolerance of sending a kid [to school] with any symptoms, no matter how mild,” said Dawn Bowdish, the Canada research chair in aging and immunity and a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton. Parents have to be especially vigilant because young children who have contracted the virus often have no symptoms or very mild ones, Prof. Bowdish said. If these asymptomatic carriers also catch a cold and go to school, they could infect their classmates and teachers.
“We could be turning people who normally would be keeping their germs to themselves, more or less, into super-spreaders. And so the timing of cold and flu season and back-to-school is problematic,” she said.
In addition, while many families are taking their children to be tested for COVID-19, experts warn that test results can be unreliable.
“If people are sending their kids to school and the virus has spread, then it might mean shutting down the school or shutting down a classroom for a couple of weeks," said Anna Banerji, a pediatric infectious-disease specialist and professor at the University of Toronto. "If we work together, we reduce the risk of things being cancelled.”
Stay-at-home policies can be confusing because of a patchwork of guidance across the country. For instance, Toronto Public Health’s school screening checklist requires children with a new or worsening runny nose to stay home, while Manitoba’s guidelines require isolation only if someone has a runny nose and a second symptom.
In some cases, parents are getting directives from schools that do not align with public-health advice.
Marie Connolly was advised by her son and daughter’s Montreal elementary school last week to keep them home for two weeks after mentioning that her husband was getting tested for COVID-19 after catching what seemed like a stomach bug.
Ms. Connolly, who also got sick, called the provincial information line and was told her children could go to class because they didn’t have any symptoms and had not been in contact with anyone known to have COVID-19. Before sending them back, she sent the school her and her husband’s negative test results.
“I was kind of frustrated that both my kids missed two days of school,” said Ms. Connolly, an economics professor. “I feel like the school days are very precious because we haven’t had school since March and who knows what’s happening in the future.”
Julie Penner, a Winnipeg mother of two, became alarmed when her children’s school included sneezing on a list of symptoms requiring students to stay home. She e-mailed the principal to point out that Manitoba does not include sneezing as a COVID-19 symptom and credits him for deferring to the provincial guidelines. “I’m concerned that kids will be sent home unnecessarily or even encouraged to go get tested unnecessarily, putting stress on the system,” said Ms. Penner, a musician.
Sarah Lebar of Toronto is worried about how strict screening rules will affect her eight-year-old son, Rowan, who has special needs. While she will tell Rowan’s teacher that he has a persistent sniffle, likely because of seasonal allergies, she worries about his interactions with other people at the school, especially because he expresses physical sensations literally, such as saying his belly is sore when he is hungry.
“If he’s in the schoolyard with a schoolyard supervisor and he runs up to them and says, ‘My tummy’s sore,' are they going to go, ‘Okay, you have a symptom, you’re going home now’?” asked Ms. Lebar, a research administrator.
After missing three days of Grade 1 because of his runny nose, Finnegan Brophy was thrilled he could go to school with his older sister Thursday, said Ms. Rose, a trade policy adviser.
“He made up a song about going back to school that he sang on repeat all morning,” she said. “So everyone is happy.”