The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently made it official: Last year was an especially bad year for the flu. In fact, last flu season was the first to be classified as “high severity” across all age groups.
We saw that here in Maryland, at our schools, with both students and staff hit hard. This was exacerbated by the fact that thousands of parents had no paid sick days. They had to pull children out of their sickbeds and send them to school, even though they were hurting and not nearly well enough to learn. Parents with no paid sick time feared losing their jobs if they stayed home with a sick child.
Everybody lost. When a mother brings a child who isn’t well to school in the morning, that child may spike a fever of 102-degrees by lunchtime. By 2 p.m., 30 children in the kindergarten class have been exposed. Often, teachers and school staff are infected as well. They all get sicker, and take longer to recuperate, if they cannot stay home and spend a few days in bed recovering.
Parents suffered too, of course. Moms, dads and other guardians felt guilty and inadequate when they reluctantly forced their sick sons or daughters to get up and dressed and onto the school bus, crossing their fingers that the kids would be able to tough it out until the school day ended. Often the children could not and, in those cases, school nurses like me became involved, calling to tell parents they had to leave work to come to school to collect a sick child. I knew that, for many parents, that would mean losing a day’s pay – and that, in turn, might mean not being able to buy groceries this week, pay for gas, or cover the electricity bill or the rent.
It made a bad flu season a lot worse.
And it made my job much harder. Seeing the faces of those children, watching over them as they spent miserable hours in the school’s health room, and making those calls to parents had been one of most difficult parts of my job as a nurse in Howard County Public Schools for the past 13 years. Like other school nurses, I did my job, putting the health needs of sick children first. But when doing my duty meant destabilizing a family’s already-precarious economic security, it wasn’t easy.
The good news is that those impossible situations may finally be in the past. As we enter a new flu season, I am so grateful that Maryland’s state legislators had the wisdom to adopt a paid sick days law for our state.
They did what was right, and it wasn’t easy. Champions in the state legislature fought for five years to create a path for all Maryland workers – and particularly our lowest wage earners – to earn paid sick leave. It’s not a gift but something workers earn, and it’s what children and families need. And not only did the legislature pass the law, lawmakers even managed to overcome a veto from Gov. Larry Hogan.
I’ve been a registered nurse for 40 years, and I am passionate about this issue because it’s one of the best things I’ve seen lawmakers do for our state and all of us who live in it. They deserve our gratitude, now more than ever with a new flu season beginning. With the Healthy Working Families Act now law, earned sick days are finally a reality for hundreds of thousands more Marylanders, many of whom will no longer face an impossible choice between their child’s health and their paycheck when the flu strikes.
I know that’s good for workers and that it also helps businesses. It’s also good not only for students and schools, but also the elderly and all those who care for them.
This new law is giving financial security and peace of mind to workers. It is a boon for our families, schools and our public health. It’s a new day – and a better day – in Maryland, at last.
— MARY STEIN, BSN, RN
The writer, a nurse for 40 years, works for Howard County Public Schools in Columbia.