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Is it a runny nose or is it COVID? Doctor, school nurse weigh in on when to keep your child home

Published: Sep. 7, 2020 at 9:51 AM MDT
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KKTV) - With many students back to learning in person and more to return in the coming days and weeks, districts are having to take extreme precautions to ensure the coronavirus doesn’t run rampant through schools.

One way schools are curtailing the spread is by keeping people home if they are showing potential COVID-19 symptoms or have had close contact with someone with symptoms. District 20, Colorado Springs’ largest district, has had to do this several times in the young academic year, including 14 people across three schools on the very first day of classes.

But this poses a significant challenge for parents, as several coronavirus symptoms overlap with other illnesses, including the cold and the flu, meaning their children could be kept home due to a runny nose or a cough until they’re confirmed negative for COVID.

11 News reporter Melissa Henry spoke with a doctor, who says he empathizes with parents. Dr. Michael Roshon, who is chief of staff at Penrose Hospital, told Henry that no matter how many times we go over the symptoms of COVID-19, like cough or fever, those are simply things that kids, especially younger ones, are going to experience.

“It is complicated, because these symptoms can be so widespread in kids, and they can be caused by anything. They can be caused by allergies. They can be caused by smoke in the air ... so you really have to use a little bit of judgment,” Roshon said.

Henry asked him how parents can realistically manage this decision each morning: Do they send their child to school with a slight runny nose, which may be just that? Do they keep them home every time they have a runny nose because it might be the coronavirus?

The latter could be unrealistic because for some kids, they may end up at home more than they are at school. Roshon said the best thing parents can do is look out for new or unusual signs of being sick.

“Most parents really know their kids, and they know their patterns. If your kid usually gets a sniffly nose and it last for a day or two and then it gets better, I think that’s fine. But if your kid usually doesn’t get fevers, doesn’t get a cough, and now they’re getting those classic symptoms, you have to assume that it’s coronavirus,” Roshon said.

School nurses, too, are making these judgment calls, fielding through all the stuffy noses and sore throats while trying to determine which ones may be COVID-19.

“Everything goes through the COVID filter because the symptoms include so many different things, so when we look at a student with an illness, we ask all the same questions we used to ask in the past, but then we ask additional ones, seeing do we need to be concerned for COVID,” said Janice Latendresse, a nurse at Mesa Elementary School.

Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8, of which Mesa Elementary is a part of, has nearly doubled its nursing staff this year to have enough nurses at every school.

“Last year, for instance, I had three buildings,” Latendresse said. “This year, the district recognized for the health and safety of students and staff, they bumped it up, and they hired several new nurses. We have a nurse in every building.”

Latendresse encourages parents to call their pediatricians and the school nurses if trying to make the right call about whether or not to send their child to class.

“Allergies, the common cold, we have not hit flu season yet, but that is going to be on it. Sconversationstrep is there, we have had a couple of cases of strep, so we’ve just had a lot of coversations about alternate diagnosis. ... If it’s something the student has every year, ’Oh he gets this every year,’ call and have a conversation with your pediatrician, because if you talk to your pediatrician and they have an alternate diagnosis, then we can take that off the plate.”

Bottom line: if it’s new or unusual in your child, err on the side of caution.

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