From COVID tests and contact tracing to angry parents, school nurses say it’s hard to keep up

It’s hard to be a school nurse right now.

Worries about COVID dominate their days. This year, all students are back in class, so there is almost no physical distancing. This is even if the highly contagious delta variant continues to spread.

WBUR All things Considered Host Lisa Mullins spoke with two Massachusetts school nurses to learn more about the challenges they face on a daily basis.

Cathryn Hampson is the health services supervisor for the North Middlesex Regional School District, which includes the towns of Townsend, Pepperell and Ashby and has approximately 3,000 students. Hampson is also a school nurse at a nursery school in Townsend.

Linda Cahill is the nursing supervisor for Brockton Public Schools, which has about 15,000 students in 23 schools.

Cahill and Hampson say they are seeing more students testing positive for COVID than they did last year. This is the case in many neighborhoods. The state says there is also more testing underway than last year.

Interview Highlights

On the stress of the current situation, which Hampson says she doesn’t think will be sustainable for her and the nurses she oversees:

Hampson: “At this point in the year…they’re already exhausted. They’re already working 10 and 12 hour days, some of them, trying to keep up with all the work…And they’re already feeling very overwhelmed, stress.

“At one of our elementary schools, they had two positive cases that resulted in 32 close contacts; of those 32 close contacts, approximately 28 would ‘test and stay’ every morning. And, so, the two nurses would be supposed to test all 28 students and staff on entry to school before they can go to work and go to their classrooms… So unvaccinated students, they can choose to stay at the school during their quarantine period if they are a close contact, and they must test negative every morning. Outside of school, they must be quarantined and follow the traditional quarantine at home.

On what it’s like to handle all the demands, from testing students for coronavirus to dealing with children’s other medical needs:

Hampson: “The other things we usually do—caring for diabetic patients…taking medicine, seeing sick students on a daily basis. Now, any student who gets sick needs to be seen by the nurse, and she needs to do an assessment and decide, “Are these symptoms like COVID? Should this student go home and get tested? …And right now, what do we have? We have seasonal allergies, so everyone has a runny nose, [is] congested, [has] a cough.

“We brew staff. I [am the school nurse] in a kindergarten, so we start a little later. So schools that test earlier, I go first. I help them with their tests and then I come to my school to cover my school for the day.”

On what falls by the wayside:

Hampson: “Time to get to know my kids. I miss the chance to sit in my office and read a book with a student who is waiting for a parent to pick him up. I miss the chance to sit down with parents and console them if that’s what they need, or encourage them, or let them know about a new health issue their child might be having, as so much of the day is consumed with COVID .

Cahill: “It’s tough. My day starts with checking for COVID cases and letting the nurses know where those cases are, so they can make sure the kids aren’t in school. they are, they have to go home. And then [school nurses are] identify close contacts as well…so it’s a lot busier, and we’re trying to get more help. We have added a few positions, but they are still not hired. So it works every day, and the nurses are really exhausted… Hopefully by the end of this year, we’ll be in a better place once the vaccination is approved for the younger ones.

On what they would ask parents, to help school nurses:

Cahill: “My message to parents is: if your child is sick, please stay home. And if you are waiting for a test for COVID, do not send the child to school until you have not got the test result… They are sending their children to school waiting for a test, then the test comes back positive.So they infect more children when they come to school.

Hampson: “I would also add to that: please remember that we follow protocols. While I know a lot of parents are frustrated and we’re all very tired of this, we just have to remember to be kind to each other and as uplifting as possible through all of this… I just see an increasing number of people who — their frustration and anger about a lot of different things related to COVID has gotten intensified to the point where it affects how they deal with and talk with others.This week alone, I have dealt with several parents whose frustration caused them to yell at me and my nurses.

At the root of parents’ frustrations:

Hampson: “There are probably multiple roots, honestly, but I think it’s frustrations with belief systems and a lot of false…resources have led parents to believe that COVID isn’t real, we don’t need to mask up we shouldn’t be in quarantine… A lot of people have missed a lot of work over the last year and a half and now you’re telling them they have to be out of work again. So here I come to notice, overall, less kindness and understanding this year than we encountered last year… And I guess I would just encourage people to take a deep breath and talk with us.

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