The following guest post was written by Jenny Doezema, a Kalamazoo resident who sends her children to Kalamazoo Public Schools. Enjoy.
Earlier this month, Kalamazoo schools were closed when more than 1,900 students fell ill on the same day. The district closed all schools on a Friday to allow them to disinfect the school buildings over a long weekend. Other schools were closed that week due to illness as well. Winter is normally a time of year when schools are closed for inclement weather, but this year’s unseasonably warm weather has lessened the need for closing schools. So why are so many schools closing because of massive amounts of sick students?
Any teacher or parent will tell you that when one child is sick, the likelihood that more will get sick is very high. That’s why schools ask that parents keep their children home when they are sick. However, the more complicated question is why parents make that choice. The fraying of the social safety net over the past few decades ensures that many parents simply don’t have the option of taking time off to care for a sick child or paying for child care. Increasingly, parents are being forced to send their kids to school sick because they do not have access to earned paid sick time. As a matter of fact, parents without paid sick days are more than twice as likely as parents with paid sick days to send a sick child to school or day care.
Consequently, the fault of sick children being in schools is typically placed on parents; often framed as inconsiderate by school administrators and parents alike. On the other hand, great consideration for the needs of the family is taken in making this difficult choice. The average gross income for Kalamazoo households is $41,250. The cost of living, especially historically high insurance rates, in Michigan is rising and the rarity of jobs offering benefits increases the cost of getting sick. Families without paid sick leave are often left with the choice of losing pay, to care for sick loved ones, or going to work and enduring the infection as it spreads throughout the household. Families often weigh the costs against the benefit of the choices they make in their daily lives. In this case, the cost of sending sick children to school was paid by the infecting of thousands of other students. Regrettably, the cost of staying home to care for sick family members often means loss of income, utilities and basic needs, or even employment.
The rarity of an entire school district closing due to an outbreak of infection among students shows the severity of the de-prioritization of health because many Michiganders cannot afford it. The reality is that maintaining your health and having access to health care are income-based privileges. That’s why all of Michigan’s working people should have guaranteed earned paid sick time. The recently introduced Earned Paid Sick Time bill, also known as House Bill 4307 would require employers to “provide paid sick leave…and prohibit retaliation against an employee” for using or inquiring about this right. The EPST bill would ensure that families do not have to choose between providing for themselves and protecting their well-being.
This legislation is common sense as it would help workers, their families and help stop the spread of illness. If we don’t do anything to ensure that sick students have the option of staying home then we just might be faced with even more school closings like we saw this month.