Column: I am a school nurse. Everyday feels like a “war zone”

Amy Isler, MSN, RN, is a school nurse in California who works with students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Here, she shares her experience dealing with a surge in COVID-19 cases and explains why the administrative costs of keeping schools open are worth it for students.

The highly contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19 is spreading like wildfire across the country. The surge in COVID cases has put school districts, administrators, parents and students in crisis mode as they return from winter break, and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down.

School leaders are scrambling to figure out how to best control the situation. The results have been mixed, from school closures in Chicago and a dispute with teachers’ unions to high school student strikes across the country. But the question remains the same: security.

As a school nurse in California, I’m in the midst of a fire storm, the biggest health emergency to hit a school in recent years. My school district plans to remain open. Going to work every day feels like being in a war zone. School staff are stressed, overwhelmed and on the verge of collapse – and it’s only mid-January.

But we are doing everything we can to keep schools open.

Omicron is spreading rapidly. What can we expect in the new year?

Schools are now COVID command centers

The phones started ringing on the morning of January 3 — when we got back from winter break — and they didn’t stop. The influx of calls are reporting positive cases of COVID in students and family members.

Our employees were caught off guard by the number of post-holiday COVID-19 cases and unprepared for the days ahead. But the front office quickly became a crisis center, with a system in place within hours. At the end of the day, everyone in the office has responsibilities, and Google Sheets becomes our shared brain. My role became focused on testing students and staff with symptoms of COVID, or exposure to people who tested positive.

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I have been a school nurse for seven years and I can confidently say that the past three weeks have been by far the most stressful days of my career.

The real heroes of this pandemic are the students who come to school every day ready to learn and be with friends, even when the adults around them are in crisis mode.

Classroom is safe

good news? Running a makeshift testing center gave me the insight and data that COVID-19 was not spreading in the classroom. It is brought into the school through community exposure. That means the safety measures our district implemented in the fall are working: wearing masks, social distancing, testing, checking for symptoms at home, and contact tracing. To me, it proves that the classroom is a safe place for our staff and students.

The real heroes of this pandemic are the students who come to school every day ready to learn and be with friends, even when the adults around them are in crisis mode. The highlight of my day was interacting with these kids. Even though our interaction involved me wiping the inside of their nose twice a week, they participated with a smile and a good attitude. Some even said “thank you” as they ran back to class, giggling with friends. Now this is a normal part of going to school.

The Definitive Guide to Masks

bad news? Right now I’m a COVID testing machine, which leaves me with insufficient bandwidth to manage my core day-to-day school nursing duties. COVID-19 issues now occupy 95% of my workday, but still need to inject insulin for students with type 1 diabetes. Students with epilepsy still need monitoring. Asthma attacks still happen. Playground injuries are inevitable.

With 900 kids on campus, my biggest concern right now is not the spread of COVID-19 in the classroom, but the inability to recognize and respond to preventable health emergencies.

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The ‘new normal’ is unsustainable for schools

For parents, we have a script: the latest version of the COVID-19 school guidance developed by our state and county public health departments. But it’s much more complicated behind the scenes.

If someone tests positive while being vaccinated, unvaccinated, exposed while wearing a mask, or exposed while not wearing a mask, there are flowcharts to help determine the protocol. The administrative task of contact tracing required for each student who tests positive is staggering. Faculty and staff must correctly code attendance, send detailed letters to students’ homes, create separate study packages for remote learning, and call anyone who may have been in contact.

my school agreement

  • If a student or staff member tests positive, they must be quarantined regardless of whether they have been vaccinated. They can retest after 5 days, and if the result is negative, they can go back to school on day 6. If they are still positive, they must stay home for the remainder of the 10 days, but do not need to be tested again to come back.
  • If a family member tests positive and the student is not vaccinated, they must isolate for 20 days. However, if students are vaccinated, they can remain in school unless they develop symptoms and/or test positive for COVID-19.
  • If a student is exposed at school (which happens at the lunch table) then they must quarantine for 10 days unless they are vaccinated. If they are vaccinated, they can stay in school unless they develop symptoms and/or test positive.
  • Students may remain in school if they are masked (within 6 feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes). If they are not vaccinated, they must be tested twice at school within 10 days. If they are vaccinated, they can stay in school, and testing is recommended 3 days after exposure.

Meanwhile, recent changes to the CDC’s guidelines for isolation and isolation have made things even more complicated.

As employees, we feel that there are more questions than answers. Security protocols are endless. Are these guidelines sustainable enough to keep schools afloat? Keeping all of this feels unmanageable and impossible, especially when employees are sick or quarantined.

My biggest concern right now is not the spread of COVID-19 in the classroom, but the inability to recognize and respond to preventable health emergencies.

Cracks in the school system emerged after COVID emerged. My region is doing well thanks to a range of protocols implemented previously, including PCR and antigen detection systems. But the winter surge of Omicron variants has hurt many education systems. I fear they will not be repaired without a complete reassessment of what education in America means today.

A lot of people in education have stepped forward to welcome this moment, but by the end of the school year, I wonder how many people will jump ship and decide it’s no longer right for them.

how you can help

If you have a school-aged child, the best way you can help is to be patient and flexible. School staff are doing their best to manage the influx of positive cases. If you receive a call or email from the school, please respond immediately with the information they need.

Get your child vaccinated. Not only will this help reduce the spread of COVID, but if your child is exposed to someone who has tested positive, it will also significantly reduce the time they spend out of the classroom.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means that you may have updated information as you read this article. For the latest updates on COVID-19, visit our Coronavirus news page.