How Sick Is Too Sick? The Crisis of How High Schoolers Are Approaching the Cold Season

I have a cold. My symptoms? A stuffy nose, a sore throat, and a slight sneeze. My location at 7:30am? School. Why? Because I have a math test today, and an in-class essay due tomorrow that I simply can’t miss. Oh, and I also have a negative COVID test.

In the midst of cold season, high schoolers around the country face similar dilemmas, and are forced to deliberate on how sick is too sick. It’s a tissue-filled game of Would You Rather?. The choice is whether to undergo 6 hours of trying to stifle coughs and sneezes, or retreating for a couple of days to recover– but risk missing valuable lessons in class, or making up a stack of work. As we continue to rationalize which days we can miss, putting the variable of our wellbeing and academic efficiency on the backburner, a question persists: When did prioritizing our health become a luxury rather than a necessity? The art of ‘playing hooky’ has faded for most into an old elementary school pastime, now replaced with anxious thoughts of what we could miss in taking a day off and guilty feelings should we dare to. A work induced FOMO, if you will. The result? A germ-filled school environment crowded with the latest viral infections, and students keeping pods of DayQuil in their backpacks to take in the middle of English instead of from their bed, claiming that their symptoms aren’t ‘that bad’ anyway.

One Sophomore remarked, “I wouldn’t say it’s a pressure necessarily from the school directly, it’s just that I know if I stay at home for long I’ll miss so much work, so I might as well suffer through it. It’s not that bad.”
What has induced this shift? At what age did we start to feel like the idea of missing school was more a chore than a reward? It can stem from the over-looming pressure to maintain ideal grades, an academic anxiety that blinds our reason. It is not the absences themselves, but the idea that taking a day (or more) to treat a cold is a waste. That mindset, however, encourages students to manipulate their own definitions of ‘sick’ and ‘not sick’. As work builds up, personal guidelines grow looser.

We may be so focused on school that a battle between grades and health might make the latter the loser between the two. But our health is not to be just another variable in Would You Rather, it’s a necessary element in ensuring that we can feel and perform to the best of our abilities.

Some may view COVID and the introduction of quarantining as the cure for this trend of health-related flippancy. In reality, it has only aided the issue at hand. For the past two years, whenever we’ve contracted cold or flu-like symptoms, our response has been to hold our breath and hope it wasn’t something worth getting concerned about. As a result, it’s now almost an internalized response to think, ‘Hey, if it’s not COVID, it can’t be that bad’. But what if those cold or flu-like symptoms turn out to be just a cold? Does the illness cause any less discomfort?

As we enter full-force into this year’s cold season, we must take a step back and assess the crisis that we have come to view as the norm: Going to school even when our body tells us to take a break. But when is a better time to take a break? When our symptoms are mild and we can get a hold on it, or when the virus doubles down on our immune system and we are forced to bed? While it’s not bad to take our school work seriously, students must monitor the line between what is reasonable self-control and what is withholding ourselves from necessary time to get better, for the sake of containing contagion and for their own wellbeing.

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