There are any number of reasons that a child might have the sniffles, or run a fever, or get a stomachache. But since all of these ailments are also potential symptoms of a COVID-19 infection, school districts are under instruction from the State Health Department to isolate children with these and other symptoms until its confirmed that child can't spread the disease at a school, said Rochester Regional Health Pediatrician Dr. Steven Schulz today in a Zoom conference call with reporters.
"Because of low community prevalence, there's a 99-percent chance that those symptoms are due to a different virus, that it's not COVID and that's a good thing and a good place that we're starting out with," Schulz said.
"But because we don't want COVID to spread in the schools and break out, we are being very stringent. Actually, it's the Department of Health that's been very stringent with regulations on what's required to eventually return to school."
If a child goes home with a potential COVID-19 symptom, that child can't return to school unless there is a negative COVID-19 test, and the child is again symptom-free, and a doctor has cleared the child to return to school.
The reason a child must be symptom-free even after a negative test for COVID-19, Schulz said, is because of the small percentage of COVID tests that return a false negative.
Schulz serves on the Finger Lakes Region School Reopening Task Force and is one of the people responsible for writing school reopening guidelines in the region. RRH, parent hospital group for UMMC in Batavia, sponsored today's press conference on what parents should know as their children return to school.
Possible COVID-19 symptoms that could lead to a child being kept out of school include runny nose, congestion, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, fatigue, poor appetite.
"There's a whole host of conditions that can cause all of those things, not just COVID," Schulz said. "And so many kids do have chronic conditions, such as seasonal allergies that can have overlapping symptomatology."
For children with chronic conditions, a doctor can verify those conditions and letters written as needed to allow those children to return to school.
What the main focus is on, he said, is the development of new, or different, or worsening symptoms.
"Every school district has implemented a screening protocol for students and parents to go through before that student set foot sets foot on campus If they screened positive for any of those," Schulz said. "Again, focusing on new and worsening symptoms, in particular, and those would be reasons for an evaluation with the health care provider.
"Obviously, the big one would be a fever. If a child has a fever, they certainly would need to have additional evaluation. So we, of course, would encourage families if there is any concern that their child might have symptoms that are consistent with COVID to contact their health care provider for the next steps."
If a child at a school does test positive, the Health Department will take over, conduct contact tracing, and determine if any other children were exposed and take proper precautions as necessary. If proper social distancing has been maintained and masks are worn properly, it may not be necessary to quarantine other children.
One thing parents can do to help the entire community, Schulz said, is to ensure they and their children receive a seasonal flu shot.
"It's especially important this year," Schulz said. "COVID and flu have a lot of overlapping symptoms and people can theoretically be infected with both. The concern with that is that we could overwhelm our health care system not just with COVID, but also with flu. Both together could overwhelm it even more.
"So the flu vaccine is a safe and effective way to protect you and others around you from getting the flu. And we are encouraging everyone to get that as early as possible this year."