12/07/2011 03:04 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2012

Perfect Attendance: Cold and Flu Season's Public Health Menace

I get a little annoyed when I sit through awards ceremonies at my kids' schools each spring. In June, the Perfect Attendance award seems like a straightforward recognition of a job well done. Indeed, in high school, where teenagers take attendance into their own hands, rewarding the responsible ones is important. Furthermore, I understand that public schools which receive funding based on average daily attendance have reason to recognize those who keep its daily census up and keep their money flowing consistently. However, similar to current public health efforts which aim to reduce rising obesity rates and to discourage unhealthy lifetime habits, we need to teach our kids to realistically evaluate and treat their own illnesses -- every day and especially during cold and flu season.

This time of year, when coughs, runny noses, colds, and flu run rampant through school classrooms, sick kids cause problems for the rest of us when they are taught to value Perfect Attendance above taking care of themselves and above consideration for their classmates. Elementary school teachers try to combat germs. Some make students use hand sanitizer when they walk into class. Others force children to wipe down with bleached wipes. The teachers themselves are at risk for catching our kids' germs too of course. I cannot blame them for these efforts even though I don't like the germ killing chemicals and some research suggests these potions create resistant supergerms.

High school kids and some middle schoolers who can decide for themselves to skip school can also stay at home by themselves when they are sick, but elementary school kids, and preschoolers of course, cannot -- therein lies the problem. You parents know the story. If mommy and daddy both work, one has to take the day off, or work from home, to care for a sick child. Then mommy and daddy put their "Perfect Attendance" ratings at work in jeopardy. Even if we have sick days allotted, some employers think poorly of those who get sick or take a few days off work to care for sick kids. I understand that employees don't want to call in sick, especially when their jobs are at stake and in this poor employment market. Many of us don't have jobs with the benefits of formal sick days either.

I used to work for a private firm whose owner was very suspicious when employees called in sick. He was the kind of boss who stood by the front door to make sure everyone arrived at work in time, and if your hands were not on the keyboard at 8:00 am, he considered you late. Yep, like many normal people, I got sick one flu season, was advised to pump myself with over-the-counter remedies and keep working. For several days, I spent my lunch breaks lying on the floor under my desk, either sweating or shivering. It was required that I keep working while I was sick because the client expected his report on time. Sure enough, trying to recover from the floor of my office didn't succeed. I ended up with pneumonia and finally had to stay home for two weeks. When I recovered and returned to work, the boss gave me a pink slip and sent me home for good. The client got his report, the boss got paid, and my services were no longer needed.

That boss was the kind of boss who valued Perfect Attendance at work above personal health and wellness. He was the kind of boss who forces employees to pretend they are not ill and force those who are parents to pump their young children with medicine and send them to school even though they are feeling rotten and are contagious. What's worse: schools then reward the children and their parents for this cycle by honoring them with a Perfect Attendance certificate in May or June, essentially teaching them to become that insensitive boss in the future. We clap for them in the spring, because by then we often forget the illnesses we had in December.

I don't see worker or educational productivity as a winner in this scenario. Working while you are sick doesn't make you productive. Kids don't do well in school when they should be at home recovering, and their peers sitting next to them don't win either. In turn, the school loses more money, because one student trying to keep up his or her Perfect Attendance record can infect the other 29 students. The only real winners in the Perfect Attendance competition are the pharmaceutical companies whose pills we pop to pretend we are not sick.