‘They see us as the enemy’: School nurses fight against Covid-19 and angry parents – Community News
Covid-19

‘They see us as the enemy’: School nurses fight against Covid-19 and angry parents

When a high school student in western Oregon tested positive for the coronavirus last month, Sherry McIntyre, a school nurse, quarantined two dozen of the student’s soccer teammates. The players had spent time together in the locker room unmasked and were prevented from returning to school for at least 10 days, according to local guidelines.

Some parents took the news badly. They told Mrs. McIntyre that she should lose her nursing license or accused her of violating their children’s educational rights. Another nurse in the ward faced similar anger when she quarantined the volleyball team. This fall, after being repeatedly hostile to parents, they began locking their office doors.

“They call us and tell us we are ruining their children’s athletic careers,” said Ms. McIntyre. “They see us as the enemy.”

Schools have been hot spots during the pandemic, the source of heated debate about the threat posed by the virus and how best to fight it. School nurses are on the front lines. They play a vital role in keeping schools open and student safety, but have come under fire for enforcing public health rules that they did not create and cannot change.

This new academic year has been the hardest yet, they say. After a year of distance learning or hybrid education, schools generally reopened at full capacity; many did so in the midst of the Delta Wave and amid an escalating political battle over “parent rights” to shape what happens in schools.

Although 12- to 15-year-olds have been eligible for vaccination since May, uptake is slow; only 48 percent of children in that age group are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The vast majority of primary school students, who were eligible for the injections just two weeks ago, remain unvaccinated.

Nurses say they are juggling more Covid cases and quarantines – and more angry parents – than ever. “I call myself a firefighter and dentist because I feel like I spend all day putting out fires and having to pull teeth,” says Holly Giovi, a school nurse in Deer Park, NY.

They are, they say, exhausted and overwhelmed. Some say they hate their jobs for the first time, while others quit, exacerbating the school nursing shortage that predated the pandemic.

“I loved being a school nurse before Covid,” Ms McIntyre said. She resigned last month.

Even before the pandemic hit, the job of a school nurse went far beyond taking care of scrapes on the playground.

School nurses treat chronic conditions, such as diabetes and seizure disorders; perform vision, hearing and scoliosis exams; ensuring students are up to date on vaccinations and physics; assist in the development of personalized education plans for students with disabilities; help students manage stress and anxiety, and more.

“You’re doing a lot more than band-aids and booboos,” Mrs. Giovi said.

According to a 2018 survey, most school nurses in the United States are responsible for more than one school. (A quarter of American schools have no paid nursing staff at all.) Most earn less than $51,000 a year.

“They were understaffed and overworked to begin with,” said Mayumi Willgerodt, a study author and an expert on school nursing at the University of Washington.

School nurses are now also managing isolation rooms for sick students, conducting virus testing and logging results, conducting contact tracing and monitoring quarantine periods, all while trying to reassure concerned parents and monitor regularly changing guidelines.

“We act as the de facto health department”, said Robin Cogan, a school nurse in Camden, NJ, and the clinical coordinator of the school nursing program at the Rutgers School of Nursing, Camden.

Julie Storjohann, a school nurse in Washington state, spends her days flipping through countless spreadsheets — for students with Covid symptoms, students with family members who have tested positive, and students marked as close contacts of other students with Covid, all of whom various quarantine and testing requirements.

“I’m exhausted,” she said. “I was hoping this year would be a little better than last year, but it’s actually worse.”

When a student tests positive, Ms. Storjohann begins an arduous contact tracing process, which includes trying to determine who the student was sitting next to at lunch or on the bus. Students are assigned seats on the school bus, she said, but don’t always stay in them, so she delves into video footage from inside the bus.

“And I’m supposed to be able to pick out this student and who’s around him,” she said. “And they’re wearing a mask, and they’re wearing a hood and hat, and it’s impossible.”

And while the Covid work can be all-consuming, students still get nosebleeds, skinned knees and head lice. “Or there’s an attack in room 104,” Mrs. Giovi said. Or the kid with a nut allergy accidentally ate his friend’s snack and you read the ingredient list very quickly. That doesn’t stop.”

Some nurses said they had fallen behind on routine school tasks, such as vision screenings, and no longer had time to give so much personalized attention.

Rosemarie, an East Coast school nurse who asked to remember her full name, recently noticed a student who was not wearing his hearing aid; he said he had lost it in the building days before.

“Pre-Covid, I would have walked around with him and tried to find that hearing aid,” she said. But she had a student in the Covid isolation room and was unable to leave her post.

Erin Maughan, a school nursing expert at George Mason University, said many nurses worked nights and weekends for no extra pay and felt “moral distress” that they still couldn’t get everything done. “While,” she said, “how many hours can one put into it?”

The American Rescue Plan, this year’s Covid relief bill, provides funds for school districts to use to hire more nurses, but many struggled to fill open nursing positions even before the pandemic. “There just aren’t people to take the job,” said Linda Mendonça, president of the National Association of School Nurses.

The pandemic has also made school nurses unwanted public health messengers, especially when they tell parents to keep their kids home from school for two weeks.

“They just hate you,” said Anne Lebouef, a school nurse in Louisiana, who said she cries several times a week. “They yell at you. They accuse you of fear mongering.”

Nurses stressed that not all parents were hostile and they understood why so many are frustrated and upset. Ms. Lebouef said she had students who missed more days of school than they attended due to repeated exposure and quarantine.

“When I have to call this one particular mom, I get so sick to my stomach and just want to cry,” she said. “I feel like a terrible person for denying these kids an education.”

For the past year, Ms. Cogan has led a virtual support group for school nurses across the country. “It’s a safe place for school nurses to share their experiences,” she said, “and to download and say, ‘This is hard. I’ve written my letter of resignation 10 times. I’m about to turn it in — can someone help me get it out of my head, help me get through another day?’”

Other nurses have had enough. “For the same pay we got before Covid, it’s just too much to deal with twice the workload,” said Ms McIntyre, who will start a new job as an operating room nurse in December.

The vaccination of children under 12 could ease the pressure on some school nurses, especially if the number of pupils they have to send home from school is reduced. (Students who are fully vaccinated don’t need to go into quarantine, CDC guidelines say.)

But many nurses work in communities where vaccine skepticism is high and relatively few students are expected to receive the injections.

More extensive vaccine authorization could also place new demands on their time. Ms. Giovi said she expected many questions from parents about the vaccines, while Ms. Cogan said she expected many school nurses to take an active role in “building vaccine confidence and leading efforts for vaccine compliance in schools. “

It’s a vital job, she said, but also one that can cause nurses even more anger from parents who oppose the shots.

As the pandemic continues to smolder, school nurses had two urgent pleas for parents: to keep their kids at home when they’re sick and — most importantly, they said — to be nice.

“We’re doing our best,” Mrs. Storjohann said, her voice trembling. She took a moment to settle in and added, “It just gets overwhelming.”