One year later: School nurses navigate pandemic

One year later:  School nurses navigate pandemic

By Don Munsch

Kara Geller has experienced the COVID-19 pandemic firsthand, and she has seen how young people have reacted to the virus over the last year.

Geller has been a nurse for 21 years and is in her 13th year with Wylie ISD. She is the campus nurse at Bush Elementary School. 

She contracted the coronavirus over Christmas but has recovered, and she quickly points out she has no desire to contract it again and will do everything to protect herself from the virus. She plans to get the vaccine. Her husband, a firefighter, also contracted and recovered from the virus.

Geller described the last year as “crazy” since the pandemic hit, with nurses putting in a lot of hours. Although the campuses didn’t reopen after spring break, Geller and other nurses were contributing as much as they could, serving lunches to students and doing temperature screenings at graduations.

“We would have nurse meetings every week – virtual – and all during summer we had nurse meetings to try to make a plan,” she said.

Many students were fearful when the pandemic first hit, Geller said, and she thinks the virus has taken a toll on them.

“Any little sniffle or cough (provokes concerns),” Geller said. “I had one student that was so scared she was going to get COVID, she would just break down in tears. But we do constant hand-washing teaching, constant reminders because it is elementary school – pull up your mask, cover your cough. I think as time goes by, the anxiety goes down; it has gone down quite a bit. But with that, so does their guard.”

So teachers have to remind students to follow guidelines, but students are getting more comfortable, says Geller.

With school in session, Bush has some students learning from home, the nurse said. For those students on campus, the teachers have become conversant in distinguishing which students to send to the nurse’s office. The emphasis centers on keeping the nurse’s office available for sick kids and not expose those students to kids who are well.

Geller said she wants to be available to teachers in the event they need to send students to her office. 

If students have a cough and a fever, then nurses follow guidelines on recommendations, said Geller. The student can stay home for 10 days, get a negative COVID-19 test or return with an alternate diagnosis from a doctor.

“So say if I send a kid home and they have strep and they tested negative for COVID, they can return after they’re 24 hours fever-free,” she said.  

In classrooms, nurses have helped teachers arrange desks in classrooms to implement social distancing as much as possible.

“We make ourselves available pretty much night and day for teacher concerns, parent concerns, constantly checking emails and text messages,” she said. 

Geller wears the standard personal protective equipment, including N95 masks, and engages in social distancing, all the while seeing students with coughs and teachers needing temperature checks.

As the district’s coordinator of health services, Amy Hillin oversees the campuses 20 registered nurses, three licensed vocational nurses and two non-licensed medical staff who help the nurses at the high schools. The district just hired a new registered nurse to assist with overall district needs. 

As the virus first invaded the U.S. last year, Hillin recalled watching events closely in Washington state, where some of the first cases occurred. In early February 2020, the district started getting its emergency response team together to examine the virus and make plans. Discussions on closing schools began before spring break, Hillin said. 

“And then during spring break, we were able to really put together a plan of what does pivoting from in-person instruction look like to staying home,” she said.

Officials met to stay abreast of what was happening, and in the early stages, Hillin wanted to make sure nurses engaged with families, including keeping them informed with newsletters that went to homes. 

The feeding program also needed to continue, and with that, nurses assisted the nutrition department in serving meals in March, April and May to keep in touch with families. 

Regarding how the district addressed staffers’ concerns in the last year about the virus, the most significant endeavor revolved around officials ensuring fact-based communication was given to staffers. Consistency of messaging was of utmost importance, too, as a staffer could go to any campus nurse and receive the same information.

“Which was really important, because as you know, information changed very quickly, and it’s still changing very quickly and we want to make sure we have the most up-to date information,” Hillin said. 

Nurses became a really great resource for people who had concerns, and they helped dispel fears, she said.

“We just encouraged the things that we knew would help just diminish the spread, which was good hand-washing and at the time keeping the physical distance and making sure that they were wearing their masks,” Hillin added.

Also, she said, nurses helped with classroom setup to help teachers do their jobs without being in close contact with students.

“That is particularly challenging at the elementary school,” Hillin said. “The elementary school nurses probably spent more time talking with teachers and working with them in their classrooms than the upper-level teachers.”

Nurses followed guidance and recommendations on dealing with virus protection as they communicated with various people in the district – staffers and families – and consistency of messaging was paramount, too, Hillin said. Nurses had resources available they could use to talk to students about the virus, and during the closure of campuses early in the pandemic, many nurses made videos to stay in touch with students. 

Guidelines were established so that nurses know how to handle consultations with students in which they see potential symptoms and when to recommend, during conservations with parents, what actions need to be taken, such as the child being tested.

The district secured personal protective equipment early, especially when there was a shortage, and district officials worked with local partners such as Wylie Fire Department personnel to learn about resources in which they could gather PPE for staff and teachers coming into the school year. District employees received PPE and guidance on how to use it.

“I would say that has probably been our biggest impact – the education we provided to staff and families,” Hillin said. “Just keeping them abreast of what is the most current guidance and making sure we are consistent in that.”

Geller wants to give recognition to all nurses and coordinators because of all the hours they have put in, and she hopes the public can be understanding of their children’s school nurse, as they are doing the best they can.

“We’re just trying to keep our schools going,” she said.

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