At the playground a neighbor confides that his children are COVID-19 positive but they're not really that sick so he’s going to send them to school without disclosing their status. Stunned, you don’t respond but inside you are freaking out. Do you tell the school? Call the health department? Ignore it? Confront the parents?
It all depends.
“The American Academy of Pediatrics stance on this is: Clearly if you are sick, if your child is sick, you should stay home. That goes for staff members. That goes for everyone. Even if it’s a sniffle, a cough, a runny nose,” Dr. Candice Jones, an Orlando, Florida-based pediatrician and a spokesperson for the AAP, told TODAY Parents. "It can be a symptom (of coronavirus) all the way up to having really severe respiratory symptoms."
“We have seen instances where it's been reported that parents have been fudging it and saying, ‘Oh it’s just a cold’ and sending their child to school and that's unfortunate,” Jones said. “There's a potential risk for others to get that illness and especially if it could be COVID-19 — because again it's a virus and it can have light viral symptoms that you can't tell it apart from the flu or any other common cold.”
What you should do when you know a COVID-19 positive child is going to school depends on how well you know the family.
“As a parent, as a pediatrician, I would use my judgement. If I know that individual I could just as easily say, ‘I know she has a cough and a runny nose and it’s probably just a little cold, but it could be COVID. Do you think she should play today or stay at home?’” Jones said.
She does not recommend talking with a family that you don’t know well. Even a friendly nudge might be misinterpreted and reports of strangers fighting over masks or social distancing have been well documented.
“If it is someone that I don’t have a relationship with I probably would not approach them,” Jones said. “I would highly consider making an anonymous phone call … You could just say, ‘Hey this child has been exposed to COVID and she’s at school.’ You could potentially even notify your local health department.”
Annette Nunez, a psychotherapist in private practice in Denver, said she also would encourage people to report someone.
“Ethically and morally it would be the parents' responsibility to contact the school,” she told TODAY Parents. “If you have knowledge of somebody who has a virus that is highly contagious … the obligation would be then to contact the principal or administration to let them know.”
She agrees with Jones that making an anonymous call is probably safest. But she says people can even protect the identity of the child by saying that a child in the second cohort of the fifth grade or someone in the Tuesday group of Mrs. Smith’s class has COVID-19, for example.
“They don’t have to reveal who it is. Everybody can get tested and that doesn’t breach confidentiality," she said. “The schools around here have been really good about keeping things confidential. They will not say who has tested positive."
Nunez also recommends that parents speak to their children about why they might not be hanging out with a friend who tested positive but are still going to playdates or school.
“You can educate your kids, too,” Nunez said. “This friend has tested positive but that's between them and their family and what they do is between them and their family. But what we're doing is we have the ethical obligation to one: Get tested because we were exposed to see if we do have COVID. And two: If we do then we have an obligation then to quarantine.”
When it comes to college-age children, parents should do less. While they might have the same instinct to call the school and report COVID-19 positive college students attending class or partying, that’s no longer their job, Nunez said.
“Empower your child to go to whomever it is that would be responsible for identifying who has COVID and make an anonymous report,” she said. “It may not even be outing a person. It may be saying, ‘Hey in this dorm area or this living situation at this complex there’s an outbreak.’”