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Wrangling runny noses in a COVID-19 environment

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Prior to the pandemic, runny noses were an expected sight in early education and care settings. They have now been blown into the centre of heated debates around ECEC protocols and safety measures.

Should you send a child home who ‘only’ has a runny nose? What if it’s clear vs green or yellow? What should you say to the parent who’s upset because they now have to take a day off work due to the child being sent home? Where can you find information to support your decision?

You may have the feeling that nobody nose quite what to do… We offer some guidance this week’s edition of Amplify.


The NSW department of health provides a list of 8 symptoms that can be associated with COVID-19 either commonly, or sometimes.

Those symptoms include:

  • Fever (common)
  • Cough (common)
  • Sore throat (sometimes)
  • Shortness of breath (sometimes)
  • Fatigue (sometimes)
  • Aches & pains (sometimes)
  • Headaches (sometimes)
  • Runny or stuffy nose (sometimes)

The Australian Government Department of Health states that we can help to prevent the spread of coronavirus in three ways:

  1. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water, before and after eating, and after going to the toilet.
  2. Cover your cough and sneeze, dispose of tissues, and use alcohol-based hand sanitiser.
  3. If unwell, avoid contact with others (stay more than 1.5 metres from people).

However, within an ECEC setting, it’s impossible to stay more than 1.5 metres away from a child who is unwell.

The Department further states that “it is important to remember that most people displaying symptoms such as fever, cough, sore throat or tiredness are likely suffering from a cold or other respiratory illness – not coronavirus.”

There is still much that we do not know about COVID-19, but what we do know is that it’s highly contagious, that symptoms can differ between people, and that some people can be asymptomatic (show no symptoms). The challenge is that COVID-19 and the common cold share many of the same symptoms and only a lab test can accurately differentiate.

So how can we stay safe in an ECEC setting while protecting our team and our families?

Suggested steps:

  1. Ensure that you have a clear policy that states what all members of staff are required to do when any child or staff member presents with any sign of illness. You may need to update your existing policy around dealing with infectious diseases to ensure clarity around symptoms such as runny noses, sneezing and coughs, and in relation to all potential COVID-19 symptoms.
  2. Ensure that your staff are fully aware of your policy and are all on board with it.
“Our COVID-19 policy was reviewed by staff and management, and recently updated,” says Irene*, a preschool director from Sydney. “We discuss this at staff meetings and I give follow up reminders via our staff private Facebook page , email and staff notice board, although I always think having a conversation with staff is better than sending them something to read. There was anxiety amongst staff about cold symptoms and COVID-19 this year, so I printed the department of health information and infographics for parents and staff and posted it on notice boards, sign-on tables and added it to newsletters.”

3. Agree on how you will implement your policy and how you will screen children (Will you check for symptoms on entry? Will you temperature check every child and at what point during the day?)

4. Make your policy clear to families – they need to understand why you have implemented this policy and what it means for them:

  • Will you exclude any child presenting with listed symptoms?
  • At what point will they be called to pick up their child?
  • Will they need to take the child to a doctor and present a clearance certificate to allow the child back to the centre?
  • How will you be monitoring symptoms?
  • How does your policy apply to educators? (reassure them that you are making the health and safety of educators AND children a priority)
  • How does your policy apply to children with known allergies?
  • How will you communicate to parents if you think the child should undergo a COVID test?

5. Decide on how you will document the reasons for refusing a child or sending a child home and be clear on how this will be recorded and communicated to parents and carers.

We have informed parents by sharing our COVID Risk Assessment document with them,” says Jen*, a Sydney based preschool educator. “We have clear signage about our policies and how we can keep each other safe around our service and we send out regular reminders to families on our digital platform and newsletters.

“Conversations to reinforce this are always conducted with empathy towards how this impacts the family and their ability to work and function with a child sent home. Conversations are also very clear that our main priority centres around providing a safe environment for all staff and children. We always refer to reliable sources of information to support our decision to send a child home.”

There is no clear directive that allows all services to make a clear call on runny noses. It’s up to you and your team how you respond to various symptoms and how you communicate with families. Whatever you decide, it’s vital that you have a clear policy and open lines of communication, delivered with empathy during this challenging time.

“Our policy and procedures have not changed, however parents have been given more frequent information about COVID-19 symptoms and reminders from our Approved Provider and staff and this resulted in parents not sending children even when they have very mild symptoms,” says Irene.

“The most difficult change is suggesting parents take their child for a COVID-19 test, so I always say please call your doctor for advice, tell them where the testing clinic are in our area, and remind them how quick and easy it is. I also ask for the results of the child’s COVID-19 test before the child returns.”

This article from ABC News provides great commentary and discussion around whether parents should take children for a COVID test when they present with a runny nose and could be helpful as a part of your team discussions:

Members can download our COVID-19 Risk Assessment Tool and Infectious Diseases sample policy from our member hub.

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Other helpful links and resources:

*Because this is such a heated topic, names have been changed to allow for anonymity

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