KOK Edit: Your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM)
KOK Edit: your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM) KOK Edit: your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM) Katharine O'Moore Klopf

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Politics of Germs in Schools

The 2006–2007 school year is turning out to be a very germy one in my household, with Jared being in kindergarten and apparently having signed up for two courses called Making Every Germ Welcome in Your Body and Don't Be Selfish—Share Your Germs.

If any germ has come within 30 miles of him, he's brought it home and taken it in and loved it well. He's made it his best buddy and invited it to share meals and hugs and kisses with us. He's been so generous a host that today was the eleventh day of school—not in a row but scattered here and there—that he's missed since school started in September. He's had a series of colds and viruses, accompanied by heavy-duty coughing and nose snot and earaches and sneezing. It's the ritual that every kindergartner goes through, building up the immune system by pushing it to its limits. I've been through this twice before, when his sister, now 23, and his brother, now 12, started school, so I know the drill.

Today he was home with the widely dreaded pinkeye (aka conjunctivitis). Why is it that public schools want you to send your barking, gooey-nosed kid to school to spread the germs around, but the minute you utter the word pinkeye they beg you to keep the kid home? Pinkeye and rhinoviruses are both pretty damn contagious.

Last week, the school principal mailed us a letter, probably because the school computers alert her whenever a child has a certain amount of absences within a specific time period, requesting that we call her to discuss "this problem" of Jared's absences. Yes, I'd called the school nurse every morning that he was sick. Yes, I'd sent in a note to his teacher explaining his absence each time he returned to school. No one called or sent a note home to complain. Yet the principal's letter used incendiary language:

... Since it is a New York State requirement for children to attend school, and not doing so could be considered educational neglect, it is imperative that you contact me ...

Neglect? Hello? You so have the wrong family. Why imply neglect where there may not be any, especially if you haven't bothered to check out the situation until now? Save that kind of language for when you're not getting the kind of response you should be from parents.

If you'd just look in the school files or talk to the school social worker or the school psychologist, you'd know just how wrong you have it. We're the family with another son in middle school with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, the family that worked quite closely over the years with the social worker and psychologist at your school to put together the educational environment that our older son needed back in elementary school. We're the parents who recently wrote you to thank your teachers and other education professionals for all they'd done over the years for that middle-school son; you were happy to get that letter ... and the newest edition of the CHADD Educator's Manual that we donated to your staff library. Before you throw around terms such as neglect, pick up the phone and talk to me. Return my phone call. Find out who we are and what we're about and how we parent.

When I called and asked for the principal, someone took a message because the principal was attending a schoolwide concert. An assistant later returned my call. I explained Jared's series of illnesses and asked whether the school would rather have had him there, spreading his germs and not feeling well enough to learn, but all I got for my efforts was interrupted. "Oh, is that what your call was about. Okay. Thank you. Good-bye. Have a nice weekend." I never heard from the principal; no one else from the school has spoken or written to me this week about the issue.

This all leaves me wondering whether the school cares more about having enough little bodies in the classrooms each day to earn its share of federal education dollars than about having each of those little bodies be healthy. Or is it that the school must groom the children so they'll one day be adult workers who go in to the office even when they're miserably sick, just so they'll be seen as responsible employees?

Updated 11:30 a.m., 12/22/06: I snail-mailed the principal a letter that was a modified version of the above. She called me this morning. She said

  1. That she took full responsibility for her assistant cutting me off and not listening to what I had to say about my son's absences from kindergarten. She apologized.

  2. That the letter she'd mailed to me was a form letter and wasn't meant to offend.

  3. That my letter to her had made her realize that she needs to change the language of the form letter.



Imperatrix said...

I think it's more an incompetent principal than anything of broader scale. We're on our 4th principal at Trixie's elementary school (they come for 2 years as a VP -- that's all the district considers our program deserves -- then move on to a full principalship elsewhere. The first 3 were great. This one sucks. i'm glad this is our last year there.

Also, remember than in any bureaucracy, there are guidelines, but not for every possibility, just the more worrisome ones. A kid not going to school because they are sick alot isn't as big a problem as a kid whose family doesn't see the importance in a good education.

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

Yes, it's probably a computer-generated letter that ends up in a stack of papers that the principal has to sign. She probably didn't even read it. Still, if they want good school–parent relationships, they need to think hard about the language their form letters use.

Anonymous said...

I suspect this is all related to NCLB. They track absences, and too many make a school score poorly.

And that means less funding.

In other words, this is all George Bush's fault.

Unknown said...

I would be right there at the door of her office, letter in hand. No one will convince me that the principal is too busy to speak to me ever again, after a situation with a bully escalated for my middle child. That principal claimed she had no idea what was going on! Sometimes the trouble is inattention; sometimes it is the gatekeeper.
And as KathyF points out, sometimes it's W.

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

Never fear, Songbird. I've snail-mailed the principal a modified version of my post and am awaiting her response. I guess I'd been spoiled by the principal's predecessor, who was in place for years before retiring and who knew my family well.

Anonymous said...

Good for you, Katharine! It's quite likely that your persistence will at least prevent another parent from receiving that particular form letter. I hope your sweetie feels better soon.

A friend faced a similar situation a couple of years ago with a child who has ongoing respiratory problems -- but he was in middle school at the time. I can't imagine getting so concerned about kindergartners missing school. In Alabama, children aren't required to attend public kindergarten anyway.

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

That's what's so ironic, Kathy: New York state law doesn't require children to attend school until they're 6 years old. Lots of school districts here do offer full-day kindergarten, though, and most people do send their children to public kindergarten.

Anonymous said...

Same here with the public schools, although quite a few folks choose private kindergarten for their kids.

Anonymous said...

School districts usually have a form letter they are required to send out whenever a student reaches X number of absences. Seems they could be a bit more careful with the wording. The flip side is that, in cases of actual educational neglect/chronic truancy (e.g., multiple letters ignored), the school district can refer the parents for intervention through the judicial system.

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