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Michael Gutzeit, MD, pediatrician Children's Wisconsin president primary care

Sick kids and back to school: Trusting each other and the guidance provided

I love so many things about being a pediatrician, but nothing beats the privilege of taking care of children and their families. As I reflect on all the years of my practice, my heart is filled with gratitude for the families I’ve encountered, and for the care I’ve been able to provide.

But in my reflections, I’ve noticed a shift — a shift in the way medicine is practiced because of the community’s new response to illnesses. I’m sure you can guess why. Almost three years ago, the COVID-19 pandemic changed so much of the way we interact with one another. 

As time has gone by these last few years, we have become more sensitive to symptoms of illness — especially ones that emulate viral infections — in those around us. That is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. Yet, at times, we may make assumptions that are not accurate. While this is understandable due to the extreme circumstances the pandemic put on us, I’m afraid it’s led to us losing our trust and value in each other. 

Seasonal respiratory illnesses are a reality that continue. Since 2020, COVID-19 has only added to the mix of viruses that we see churning wherever kids and crowds are gathering this time of year.  

We know our children are going to get sick, and we know once they are no longer contagious, they need to be reunited with their day-to-day activities. There may be lingering symptoms of illness, but if the guidance from your doctor is your child isn’t contagious, they should return to their activities. 

Today, we might hesitate to integrate our children back into their routines if any symptom of illness is present, or feel uneasy about reuniting them with others when other children appear symptomatic. When you come across a child with symptoms, you may have a mental checklist that sounds something like this: 

Are they positive for COVID-19? Influenza? RSV? The common cold?

With this cough, should they be around other kids or people? 

I wonder if they have a fever, too?

Could they get me or my child sick?

I know this viral season has been a challenging one. With so many viruses and non-infectious conditions, such as allergies, sharing the same symptoms, it’s hard to know what your child, or those around them, might be experiencing. 

As a community, we have to be committed to being more understanding and trusting in one another. Of course, this also means we have to take responsibility for our decision making as well. 

We all must keep up with the best practices we’ve gotten even better at over the past three years — like washing our hands, coughing and sneezing into our elbows, and keeping our children home when sick and contagious. And instead of judging others, we must make the best decisions for ourselves and trust that others are making decisions that will limit others getting sick. 

Instead of that mental checklist I mentioned before, I would encourage a list of the following statements: 

I want the best for my kids. 

I will make decisions that limit others getting sick. 

I trust others want what is best for their kids, too.

An implication of that statement includes keeping up with best practices, preventative measures and recognizing when your child shouldn’t be in school because of their illness.

We cannot reduce all risk and stop the spread of viruses. But we can slow down and reduce the spread.

If you’re unsure about when your child should go back to school, give your pediatrician a call or send them a message. Speaking from experience, these are the kinds of questions that I love to help answer.

I want to assure you that there are countless teams and individuals at Children’s Wisconsin who are working hard to provide you and your family with the most relevant pediatric health information.

So as you send your child back to school and encounter others in the community, let’s build back our sense of strong community as we take each other at our word and continue to do our best to keep our kids and families safe and healthy.

And if you or your child do get sick, stay home with my favorite secret weapon for this time of year…chicken noodle soup.

I’m grateful to serve you and your family in the year ahead. We will get through this, and most importantly, we will get through this together.

No matter what health changes this year may bring, know that the entire Children’s Wisconsin team is here for you.