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School nurses find themselves on the front lines of COVID-19 fight

Tina Locurto
York Dispatch
Principal Michael Snedden welcomes students to York Suburban Middle School as they return for the first time in six months following the COVID-19 shutdown, Wednesday, August 19, 2020. Sixth and ninth grade students started a day earlier than the rest of the district due to moving up to bigger schools.
John A. Pavoncello photo

Everything has changed, said Kacie Blum, a registered nurse for the Northeastern School District. 

COVID-19 has only added to Blum's duties, which already included monitoring the health of hundreds of students. 

"We're kind of juggling two sets of student needs," Blum said. "We have the COVID side of things, and we have the normal, everyday routine care."

Blum — who works with students at Mount Wolf, York Haven and Conewago elementary schools — said school nurses are grappling with significant increases in responsibilities, as schools and communities struggle to keep COVID-19 at bay. 

This past week, daily infection rates in Pennsylvania repeatedly surpassed levels not seen since the virus's initial peak this spring. And nationally, infections among younger Americans is surging, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The state Department of Health has provided school nurses with lists of "high risk" and "low risk" symptoms that can be used to identify if children might have COVID-19 and whether they should be sent home.

Even something like vomiting, which is common among elementary students, is considered a low-risk COVID-19 symptom and would be cause for a student to be sent home for possible testing, Blum said.

Northeastern School District nurses Kacie Blum, left, and Heather Miller.
Tuesday, September 29, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

"We're really following the guidelines super closely. I think as a district our policies are aligning with (the state)," Blum said. "Following those guidelines closely takes away that guesswork."

In August, a staff member working at Spring Forge Intermediate School tested positive for COVID-19 but had not been in the building that week. 

Northeastern School District has offered both hybrid and cyber learning options for this school year.

York County districts have used different strategies for their learning models to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Several districts have also temporarily closed schools to control new positive cases and allow for officials to clean and conduct contact tracing. 

Heather Miller, a high school nurse in the Northeastern School District, said her job has come with new challenges that slow down the process of seeing students on a daily basis.

Students at Northeastern High School are no longer allowed to have walk-in appointments and instead must request an appointment by filling out a Google form.

In the case of a medical emergency, the teacher would call the school nurse to come to the student instead, Miller said.

"Seeing the students takes a lot longer," Miller said. "It's time consuming, and a lot more phone calls."

Both Miller and Blum took additional training courses over the summer for lessons in contact tracing, a process to trace back who an infected person has come into contact with.

Though school nurses are not permitted to administer COVID-19 tests, they take the first steps in identifying students who have COVID-19 and contacting their parents and primary care physicians. 

Northeastern School District nurses Kacie Blum, left, and Heather Miller.
Tuesday, September 29, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

Northeastern School District Superintendent Stacey Sidle said school nurses have been vital to the return of in-person school by educating others and encouraging healthy habits to keep students safe.

"Over the summer, we were all a little bit anxious about if we can do this," Sidle said. "(School nurses) are working so hard and have been such a valuable resource to our district."

Miller and Blum said students of all ages have taken the new rules for increased social distancing, mask wearing and frequent hand washing seriously.

"Our kiddos have picked up on expectations regarding distancing and safety parameters put in place," Blum said. "They're going with the flow."

— Reach Tina Locurto at tlocurto@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @tina_locurto.