It’s back to school season! Educators and students are back in school, after many have prepared much of the summer. Families are once again preparing for an even more hectic juggling act.
And with the new school year, and changing weather, comes the likelihood of sick children. While no parent plans for children to get sick, most know that a cold, earache or possibly the flu are all likely at some point. Even in better scenarios, when a child falls ill and parents have paid sick days, there is a mad dash to change schedules and tend to the sick son or daughter. But when parents don’t have paid sick days -the hard reality for nearly 40 million American families- the consequences can be devastating.
The truth is, if we care about kids’ success in schools, we have to care about what happens to their parents at work. When a child falls sick, teachers or school nurses make that call. But too often, parents fear losing pay or even their job if they leave work to pick up their child, potentially leading to upheaval for the family. Sometimes a partner, or relative, can come, but what if they, too, face lost pay or discipline for leaving work? Kids frequently become sicker, and spread the illness to classmates or school employees.
Teachers know what happens when sick children must be in school: germs spread and learning is put on hold. They also know that when parents can’t take the time off to care for their little ones, they may need older siblings to stay home with them. According to a briefing paper by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 10 out of 13 Denver principals found too many instances of older siblings staying home to care for younger siblings because their parents can’t.
Stili Klikizos, a retired second-grade teacher in Milwaukee, remembers a mother who left work to pick up her sick child — and lost her job cleaning hotel rooms. Later she would leave the child who was sick at home with the older daughter, who herself was 12 or 13. Klikizos had an old couch in her schoolroom intended for a reading corner. “It turned into my sick couch,” she said. “I learned to have multiple layers of coverings — I’d peel one off when kids were sick, and take those covers home to wash.”
Schools must do all they can to comply with all the public health requirements, including ensuring that students have the necessary vaccinations each year. If parents can’t take time away for doctor visits, some students fail to get the vaccines-or even the flu shots they need, and may put others or themselves at risk of contagious yet preventable disease.
No parent should have to choose between a paycheck — or a job — and caring for a sick child. And no student should have to miss his or her own classes in order to make sure a younger sibling isn’t home alone.
Thankfully, there is a common sense solution: paid sick days.
Two states, California and Connecticut, and more than a dozen cities have passed laws ensuring workers can earn paid sick days — and more wins are on the horizon.
ABOUT THE WRITERS.
Lily Eskelsen Garcia is president of the National Education Association.
Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Otha Thornton is president of the National Parent Teacher Association.
Carol Joyner is director of the Labor Project for Working Families at Family Values @ Work.