Pandemic pushes school nurses to phone duty

With Halloween just around the corner, Tasha Hussman spent most of her waking hours making phone calls. As coronavirus spread through Boise’s Whittier Elementary School, the school nurse found herself working around the clock to try and contact trace every student.

While using the pandemic cliche of building a plane while it’s flying, Hussman said the biggest changes in her job this year have been contact tracing and making sure that school health policies are being followed, such as wearing face coverings or social distancing.

“It’s a lot of time contacting families,” Hussman said. “When can the kids go to school again? How can families seek help if they need it?”

Tasha Hussman works in her office at Whittier Elementary School on Thursday, March 11.

In the late fall, when COVID-19 was spiking in Idaho, school nurses Hussman and Terri Lindemann (who works at Shadow Hills Elementary and Pierce Park Elementary) said they spent most of their working day on the phone.

Lindemann and Hussman work at elementary schools with relatively small enrollment (Whittier has 527, Shadow Hills has 539 and Pierce Park has 278). Nurses at Boise High had to contact trace for the school’s 1,536 students.

“We couldn’t keep up,” Hussman said. “We were the eyes and ears of everything COVID going on at the schools. At the high school it seemed insurmountable.”

At Borah High, Christy Broam was in charge of contact tracing for 1,400 students. While Broam said she is usually in contact with a lot of parents, this year she was tasked with helping families navigate quarantining, testing and attendance guidelines, as well as school protocols when they were in the building.

With cases of the coronavirus slowing down statewide, Hussman said she now spends about half of her work day making contact tracing calls.

Hussman added there have been times where teachers have had to step in and take on some responsibilities that a school nurse would otherwise take care of, including minor scratches, bumps and loose teeth. Teachers were given first aid kits to use in their classrooms.

“The pandemic has showed us how much of a community we really are,” Lindemann said. “We really have to depend on others. Every year I work with students who are injured or sick at school but it doesn’t always affect the community like this.”

In Borah, Broam said teachers have a supply of bandages for minor cuts, as well as Vaseline and cotton swabs for things like chapped lips. But if a teacher is uncomfortable doing any jobs, Broam said she does her best to be available.

“I do not expect teachers to do the nurse’s job any more than they would expect me to do their teaching job,” she said.

While having teachers help with the students lowered foot traffic in her office, Hussman added that nurses missed out on spending time with students, where they are able to check in on their mental wellbeing.

“We didn’t have as much time to just sit with a kid who needs that extra TLC,” Hussman said.

Broam said Borah High implemented a system where students request an appointment in the health office for non-urgent health needs through using a QR code and google form. This allows Broam to let students know when she has the time and space for another student.

One thing that Lindemann has been constantly keeping an eye on this school year is students who have preexisting conditions or lifelong illnesses. At one of the schools where she works, Lindemann sees four students with Type 1 diabetes, who have to regularly get their blood sugar checked and also dosed insulin if needed. Lindemann said she has to be vigilant in keeping two working spaces – a clean room for healthy students, and a sick room for those experiencing symptoms or have been exposed to COVID-19 – to make sure that students who might already be immunocompromised can stay healthy.

These kids are missing out on a lot as it is,” she said. “This year is hard. I’m not going to lie.”

With elementary students in Boise returning to classes full time on March 8 (the secondary students will follow on March 29) Hussman said she is “cautiously optimistic.” While students will be wearing facial coverings and distancing, Hussman said it’s just a matter of time before there’s another positive case of COVID-19 in the school again. When it happens, Hussman said she’s hopeful that it won’t spread very much.

“Everyone will have to be on their game,” she said, adding that when the weather gets warmer students will be able to be outside more for activities and to cut down on cafeteria overflow.

Lindemann added that students will be passing around other germs as well, with cases of other illnesses like strep throat and influenza going down this year due to students not being in school for the winter months. She said she is hopeful, however, that more people will have an understanding of things like germ theory and how vaccinations work.

“Hopefully this inspires a new generation of scientists,” she said.

While Boise has 33 school nurses available, many of Idaho’s schools are forced to give those duties to other employees. Of the state’s 115 districts and 71 charters, only 38 school districts employ a certified nurse (with 166 in the whole state).

Fruitland School District employs a nurse, who spends a majority of their time at the elementary school. According to high school principal Marci Haro, this leaves the duties of nurse on herself, and other administrators in the building (namely athletic director Russ Wright and achievement specialist Mark Van Weerdhuizen). These three have done the lion’s share of contact tracing for the high school this year, and have also been trained in administering medicine.

The district hasn’t had a case of COVID-19 in three weeks. In October, Fruitland saw a large spike in cases that forced the high school to move to remote education. During that time, Haro said herself, Wright and Van Weerdhuizen spent three weeks doing only contact tracing.

Haro said she can’t have the duties of nurse moved to other staff members in the school because of the private nature of the information they are often dealing with.

“We don’t have the time of day, but we do it,” Haro said.

 

About Nik Streng

Nik Streng graduated with his bachelors degree in creative writing from Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore., in 2013 and graduated with his master’s in journalism from the University of Oregon. 

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