School nurses keeping staff, students safe during the pandemic

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By KRISTIA POSTEMA
Capital News Service

LANSING — School nurses have long played a major role in the health and safety of students and staff, but in the midst of the pandemic they’ve been tasked with the crucial role of mitigating coronavirus cases in their communities.

In April 2020, a month after schools closed due to the coronavirus, the National Association of School Nurses conducted a study to find out how school nurses were still meeting the needs of staff and students without seeing them face to face.

Most continued to provide assistance from afar, the study found. 

According to the study, school nurses reported reaching out to at-risk students, becoming health expert resources for parents, holding virtual support groups or office hours, educating and updating the community about COVID-19, formulating student health care plans and developing protocols for safely returning to school. 

“With COVID school nurses really jumped in responding at first to identify what kind of safety measures needed to be in place to safely keep our students engaged learning from a distance,” said Evilia Jankowski, a school nurse consultant for the Michigan Department of Education.

Jankowski said her position is funded through the departments of Education and Health and Human Services, which allows her to be part of the daily coronavirus updates that are provided at Health and Human Services “to identify new trends, challenges and sometimes successes.” 

Jankowski said school nurses are an essential part of reducing COVID-19 cases through “mitigation efforts,” “making sure attention is paid to at risk populations” and “identifying illness early.” 

In districts with them, school nurses have taken the lead and have become the “bridge between health and education,” according to Jankowski.

Big Rapids Public Schools is one of the few Michigan school districts that have stayed open throughout much of the pandemic. 

Makenzi Currie, the district’s school nurse under contract through Spectrum Health, has contributed to keeping the district open throughout the pandemic by monitoring COVID-19 cases while keeping up with her pre-pandemic responsibilities. 

Currie said the pandemic has made it “difficult to devote as much time” to normal responsibilities like monitoring students with chronic conditions and keeping up on CPR certification for staff members because she is often “contact tracing or doing that kind of work.”

Being the only nurse for the entire district of approximately 1,950 students makes it impossible for Currie to evaluate every potentially ill student or staff member, she said.

However, there are “protocols and algorithms” to help with COVID-related concerns based on a student’s symptoms, Currie said. 

According to Currie, the procedures provided by the local and state health departments help other staff members to determine how to handle illnesses without her present, but she is available if there is any uncertainty.

“If it is not clear cut, we err on the side of caution, because it is a school,” Currie said. “If I have any questions, I call the health department.”

The health department has been a major asset for school nurses like Currie who deal with COVID-19 in their districts while staying on top of the many other important responsibilities they have. 

Health and Human Services has also created the “COVID liaison” role for school nurses that allows for communication between the agency and schools. 

Kate Hewitt, a school nurse in the Ottawa Intermediate School District, is the district’s COVID-19 liaison, but the new responsibilities and pressure on her affects the roles of the other school nurses as well.

“When there’s a lot of COVID issues going on within the school, the (other nurses) may have to pick up the slack,” Hewitt said. “If I get called away to work on contact tracing, they have to take up the responsibilities that I normally would do that day.”

Contact tracing is one of the most effective ways to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The process often starts with school nurses, and its effectiveness relies heavily on their ability to communicate with staff and students and organize their findings.

Hewitt created a spreadsheet to organize and monitor potential coronavirus cases and said the spreadsheet helps the contact tracing process run smoothly.

After adding information about potential cases to the spreadsheet, Hewitt said she follows up and makes sure students and staff are “getting their testing, and if they have a positive result we make sure they are quarantined.” 

According to Hewitt, the next step is to “do the contact tracing and then turn the information over to the health department.”

Even with the guidance from the state and local health departments, navigating the health and safety of a school district can be rigorous and confusing during these times, Hewitt says.

According to Hewitt, the varying effects of COVID-19 on individuals make it more difficult to keep communities safe.

“Sometimes the people that you think would be positive are negative, and you’re surprised by the ones that are positive,” Hewitt said. 

Jankowski says that school nurses, like Currie and Hewitt, are proving how valuable they are by successfully navigating through the pandemic and the stress of higher stakes.

“More school districts are realizing that they need nurses to help guide them through this public health crisis, and the response post-crisis,” Jankowski said. “There will be physical, emotional and mental health needs that are going to need to be met.”

Jankowski wants the number of school nurses statewide to grow in the next few years.

“My hope is that one good thing that comes out of this pandemic is that we see our schools hiring more school nurses and valuing the work that they do and the contributions to keeping kids healthy, safe and in school learning,” Jankowski said. “Every child deserves a school nurse.”