In a typical year, a sore throat is not too much to be concerned about. However, in a year where everything has to be looked at through the lens of COVID-19, a sore throat is kind of a big deal.
About a week earlier, parents were sent a list of symptoms that would make it necessary for their child to remain out of school pending a negative test for the illness. In addition to a sore throat, symptoms include having a temperature over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, chills, cough not due to known causes, difficulty breathing, headache with other symptoms, nausea, fatigue with other symptoms, and muscle aches.
“If your child has any of these symptoms, they must get a test for active COVID-19 infection or see their pediatrician prior to returning to school,” the email to parents states.
After spending the weekend resting Toby was not feeling much better, so he was kept home from school on Monday. He had also developed a cough and a low-grade fever, so a call was made to the pediatrician.
Based on his symptoms, an appointment for him was made the same day at Cape Cod Pediatrics in Sandwich. He would not be seen inside the office, however. Instead, the nurse practitioner came outside to the car.
Ultimately, it was decided that Toby would be tested for strep as well as COVID-19. Unlike the nasal swab, all of his tests were conducted using throat swabs.
He was sent home to rest and wait for his results.
If his COVID-19 test were to come back as positive, the impacts would reach beyond Toby himself and his family. Any close contacts would have to be quarantined and tested. For Toby, this means his entire class, his teacher, and any classroom aides, such as the lunch monitor.
In the meantime, the school nurse reached out, asking for details of Toby’s absence.
“I see that your child is not in school today,” the email said. “If this is due to an illness, thank you for keeping him home!”
The email said that if parents are not comfortable getting their children tested for COVID-19, they can also keep their child home for 10 days from the start of the symptoms as long as the symptoms have abated and the child has not had a fever without the use of fever-reducing medication for at least 24 hours.
Additionally, as long as siblings are not symptomatic, they do not need to be kept home.
The list of symptoms that students need to be kept home for mirrors many of the symptoms of the seasonal cold and flu. When asked if this means that a child will have to be tested for COVID-19 each time he or she has a cold, Superintendent Pamela A. Gould said it does not.
She said that during a typical year some parents will send their children to school knowing that they have the flu, giving the child an aspirin in order to keep the fever at bay. While she said she understands that parents need their children to be in school, this is not the year to be doing that.
“We cannot do that with COVID,” she said.
At the same time, she acknowledged that the cause of symptoms can be benign. She said parents need to be making decisions based on their child as well as keeping in mind the best interests of everyone in the school community.
“You know your kid,” she said. “If there is a time where you as a parent aren’t even sure, definitely keep them home.”
For example, if a parent knows a child suffers from seasonal allergies and the child’s symptoms are typical for those allergies, there is no need to keep the child home.
Dr. Gould said there had already been a case of strep in one of the schools where the child was not tested for COVID-19 because the child’s doctor was confident the child was sick with strep.
If a child does become sick with the coronavirus, the district will have already started contact tracing on the day the child’s symptoms first started. Dr. Gould said that in the coming weeks parents will be able to download a phone app linked to the district where they can indicate exactly why their child is absent from school. This app will be different from the existing Pickup Patrol used by the schools to track student dismissal plans.
If students do have to stay home for an extended period of time, the district has ways of keeping them connected to their coursework so that they do not fall behind.
At the STEM Academy and Sandwich High School students have the ability on any given day to tune into class remotely, since the school is already operating on a hybrid model. Students who have to stay home would simply log into Google Meet for whatever period they are meant to be in according to their schedule.
Dr. Gould said that at the Oak Ridge School, something similar could likely be worked out since some classes are already synchronously taught within the building. For example, a class might be taught across three rooms to three different classes of students. One of those teachers might have the ability to pull in a quarantined child remotely.
Forestdale is not quite set up this way right now, Dr. Gould said, but that does not mean that getting work to students who are home sick is impossible. Toby’s teacher, Chrissi Howell, was able to get work to him by sending it home with his sister, Coraline, who is in kindergarten.
Dr. Gould said she knows it can be frustrating to have to keep a child home for what feels like little reason, especially when a parent has to be working. However, she said that what it comes down to is being conscientious and protecting everybody else.
Two days after Toby was tested, the test results for COVID-19 came back negative. His strep test, on the other hand, came back positive.
“I’m not happy I have it again,” he said of his results. “But I’m really happy I don’t have COVID.”