In-Depth: How will schools handle sick students during the pandemic?

Studies show spike in colds after return to class
Posted at 6:02 AM, Mar 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-18 22:59:49-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - As San Diego schools prepare to bring more students back on campus, doctors and nurses are working to ensure the reopening doesn't come with a spike in illness.

"Typically, when kids go back to school, within one or two weeks after they get back, we start seeing more visits at the pediatric and primary care offices," says Dr. Kenneth Morris, the Chief Medical Officer at Children's Primary Care Medical Group.

Morris says it comes from kids' exposure to each other and the germs they carry. This year, he warns, all of the time spent in isolation means the kids will not have built an immunity to many common illnesses.

"We do expect that we'll probably see some, some more infections that are not COVID related," he says.

Specifically, Dr. Morris says rhinovirus, which causes the common cold, could be a problem over the next few months.

Studies in Hong Kong and the UK showed surges of rhinovirus in the first few weeks after schools reopened to in-person learning.

In Hong Kong, researchers identified 482 outbreaks of rhinovirus in school settings from October 25 - November 28, 2020. That included 81 "large" outbreaks of more than 20 people. For perspective, the country only had 81 "large" rhinovirus outbreaks in all of 2017-2019 combined.

The surge led to another school shutdown in the country.

In the UK, doctors found that rhinovirus cases, which had all but disappeared during the COVID-19 lockdown, surged to pre-pandemic levels in the first two weeks after schools reopened.

As kids start to show symptoms of the common cold, it will be up to the schools to differentiate between similar COVID-19 symptoms.

In most cases, they will be treated the same way.

"Pre COVID, a child could be in a classroom with a runny nose. At this point in time, that doesn't happen," says Theresa Crosby, a Resource Nurse in the Poway Unified School District.

"These are unprecedented times," Crosby says. "Because this illness can affect certain people so terribly, we just have to err on the side of caution."

PUSD has had kids on campus since last October. Cosby says treating every symptom as if it is COVID-related has helped keep all diseases at bay. She says Poway has not had any on-campus outbreaks since returning to class.

Schools across the county have adopted similar, strict guidelines regarding illness on campus. Most will send students home at the first sign of any COVID-related symptom. They require a negative test to return or a ten-day quarantine after symptoms disappear.

PUSD also has parents sign a Health and Safety Agreement saying they'll screen their kids at home and agree to all of the safety measures the district imposes.

"The process is working," says Crosby. "Our children are in school, and I think people want to stay healthy. They want to keep schools open, and so I think, for the most part, people are following those guidelines."

Dr. Morris says the best way to stay safe and healthy is to follow the county Health Department's basic guidelines. He breaks it down to a system he calls "The Three W's."

"Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Wait to gather," Dr. Morris says. "If we can keep everybody practicing the good habits that we've all learned over the last few months, ultimately we're going to be healthier."