MONTREAL -- It used to be so simple - children who had mild colds would head to school with watery-eyes, runny noses and a grimy sweatshirt sleeve at the ready, to catch the drips.

But in the time of COVID-19, with the Montreal region on orange alert as of Sunday evening, the symptoms of seasonal viruses and allergies no longer seem benign, and are creating panic in some schools and households. Especially since children often display mild COVID-19 symptoms or more commonly report abdominal symptoms, skin changes or rashes, according to Canada’s Public Health Agency.

As a result, classrooms are losing students daily as they’re sent or kept home at the first sign of the sniffles, often without lesson plans and sometimes with longer than usual waits for test results.

Three sniffly students, three negative tests

When Rebecca Morris sent her twin boys off to Royal Vale High School she knew COVID-19 would colour every aspect of the school experience.

Little did she know, a more usual bug would sideline 13 year old Elijah, who woke up one day with a stuffy nose and a sore throat “and everybody is sent into this panic,” Morris said - even her son.

“Everyone I’m speaking to is going through the same things…calling the hotline, no one knows when they get tested, when they stay home. It’s murky.”

But even though the NDG mom was convinced Elijah had a mild cold, she followed government guidelines and kept him at home. And when her son also developed a bit of a cough, she took him to get tested. The test result was slow to arrive.

“We’re now at four days of no school. We’re now at four days of no education.” No one from the school reached out during that time, Morris said, and they felt “very alone.”

Finally, Elijah’s COVID-19 test came back negative and the result was forwarded to the school. The family was “very happy” to hear the twin would likely be permitted to join his brother in class on Monday.

The NDG mom agrees students need to remain at home when they’re sick, but wishes there was “a bit more continuity with the school for the kids who are going to be in and out.”

Parents are also keeping their kids home with what they believe to be innocuous symptoms, to alleviate other parents’ anxiety. 

That’s the decision Mitra Cowan made when her 11-year-old son who attends Academie Michele-Provost came down with a runny nose and congestion, that she, who also happens to be a scientist, suspected was a regular cold. Then came a little cough and a bit of a headache, and Cowan found herself in a COVID-19 conundrum.

“Oh absolutely it’s chaos! So I took him for a covid test, not because I thought he had symptoms but because it relieved his anxiety and it would relieve the anxiety of the school.”

Their experience at Hotel Dieu’s testing site was excellent, Cowan says, and after 36 hours, her son’s result also came back negative. But she thinks their situation foreshadows what lies ahead this school year, as viruses potentially collide all winter long.

“People feel that there’s no clear guidelines of what to do in each situation and also people who have children in more than one school, the guidelines are not the same so it can seem double-down chaotic. It’s the wild west now.”

Cowan thinks it will take time for everyone - parents and administrators - to work out the kinks, saying “we’ll have to be patient.”

A third parent shared a similar story of her son being barred from school for having a drippy nose - his only symptom. His COVID-19 test result was negative as well.

Her social media post elicited a variety of comments highlighting how difficult it is to contain COVID-19 in schools, without also temporarily isolating kids when they get other regular ailments.

“Basically if there’s ANYTHING wrong with you it could be COVID. Sigh. this is going to be a long school year,” one person posted.

Better to be safe than sorry

While not any symptom of illness calls for a COVID-19 test, it is important to go through the exercise of evaluating and observing your child’s symptoms at home in keeping with Quebec self-evaluation guides, says pediatrician and infectious diseases specialist Dr. Earl Rubin. 

“Just one undetected COVID case in a classroom can cause even greater problems, as we know,” says the Montreal Children’s physician, adding that if parents want schools to stay open, they have to be strict and keep their children home when they’re sick.

“In terms of those mild symptoms, in an ideal world you should get tested,” Rubin said, and “if it comes back quickly and it’s negative and it looks like a cold, the next question is, is one negative really sufficient? If you’re getting worse, you should have a second test.”

That means more children than usual are likely to be absent from school for days at a time out of an abundance of caution.

The hope is that some of the public health measures being implemented in schools - if properly enforced - will also reduce the transmission of run-of-the-mill viral infections 

But Rubin also indicates schools might need revolving doors, as students come and go from class, because “where there’s no government mandate that they wear a mask, even though they’re washing their hands you’re going to get transmission of the common cold.”