Caught between parents and politicians, nurses fear another school year with COVID-19
Not so long ago, Denver Public School Nurse Rebecca Sposato was packing up her desk at the end of a tough school year. She remembers looking at all of her cleaning supplies and extra masks and thinking, “What am I going to do with all this?”
It was in May, when vaccine appointments opened for the majority of adults and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention loosened advice on masks.
“Honestly, I thought we had a downward trend in our COVID numbers, an upward trend in our vaccine numbers,” she says. “And I thought the worst was over.”
Now, four months later, the pandemic is already shaking up the new school year across the country as the highly transmissible delta variant continues to cause a spike in cases. In Arizona, coronavirus outbreaks are forcing thousands of children and teachers in quarantine. In Georgia, many districts that have started face-to-face classes without a mask warrant back to distance learning after the virus has spread. And in Oregon, some districts delayed the start of the school year after teachers have been exposed to possible infection.
School nurses are responsible for ensuring the health and safety of children in schools, and managing a third year of school in a pandemic has put even more pressure on those in the profession. already facing staff shortages.
It is groundhog day for overworked school nurses
Katherine Burdge is a school nurse in Tampa, Florida, where classes began in early August amid a fight between school districts and Governor Ron DeSantis, who threatened to cut state funding for public schools which required students and staff to wear masks.
A judge ruled that DeSantis executive order banning mask warrants was unconstitutional, but Burdge says school nurses “face the repercussions” of the back-and-forth. His Hillsborough County district had to isolate or quarantine over 13,000 students and staff in the past month alone – of which more than 2,500 have tested positive for the coronavirus.
“We face COVID on the frontlines every day,” she says. “It’s a serious protest that overwhelms the district, the state, everyone.”
Eileen Gavin, a school nurse in Monmouth County, New Jersey, also said it was overwhelming and cites a worn and faded “Parking For School Nurses Only” sign as a visual representation of what she and others school nurses feel.
“It’s a bit like groundhog day: Another year of contact tracing and immunization and sort of getting the kids back to school safely, ”Gavin says. “So I think we’re traumatized. ”
Nurses are caught in the crossfire between parents and officials
Gavin says nurses continue to show up and do their jobs, but are feeling the pressure of a workload that has expanded beyond what they could have anticipated.
“It’s really a lot to take,” she said. “We are the only health professional in schools and we have our opinion and influence so much.”
Gavin says she spends a lot of time speaking with parents to help them sift through “the noise and misinformation and give them valuable resources” to deal with the coronavirus.
“We help give them the information so they can make an informed decision to keep their child safe and healthy,” she says.
Burdge, who is also the president-elect of Florida’s School Nurses Association, also says school nurses want to be a resource for parents, but the mask struggle among officials in her state has caused some heartbreak.
“We don’t want to have these nasty words, fights, debates or anything like that with them,” Burdge said. “We’re a resource for them, and open communication, I think, is key at this point.”
Sposato says where she is in Denver she is “a very pro mask.” She believes Burdge’s experience with epidemics – likely intensified by DeSantis’ order to eliminate mask warrants – indicates “why we need to follow health guidelines and scientific evidence on this,” she says. “The health guidelines are working.”
Fears over student and staff safety escalated on the eve of a pandemic third school year
Sposato says his biggest fear as this new school year approaches “is that one of the mutations is going to overflow the vaccine, and we will see more and more COVIDs being present in our community.”
Gavin says his biggest fear is school closures. “Children have to be in school. We have to be in school, ”she said. She hopes that putting on layers of protection will get the year off to a safe start. “We kind of have to stay firm with this so that we can keep our schools open for our kids.
Burdge says school closures are on everyone’s mind, but she is also worried “for our nurses and their safety and well-being – that we are going to burn out.”
“Our school nurses are exhausted,” Gavin says. “I think last year I said that school nurses felt the weight of the pandemic was on their shoulders. We are on our knees now, with the weight of the pandemic on our shoulders.”