Nurses to the rescue: Pandemic changes job descriptions for school RNs

While still dealing with bumps and bruises on the playground, school nurses in Routt County have become an extension of the public health department in the COVID-19 era

Wearing full PPE, Patty Oakland, director of health and wellness at Steamboat Mountain School and Emerald Mountain School, stands in the doorway of the space where she conducts COVID-19 testing for staff and students. Oakland said it's "a sign of the times" having to find any extra nook or cranny to safely conduct testing during COVID. (Courtesy)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When Roberta Smith took over as Routt County public health director, she asked a peer in another county what she should be doing on day one to make herself successful.

“Her advice was get to know your school nurses,” Smith said.

During the pandemic, school nurses have almost become an extension of the public health department, Smith said, dealing with cases in the schools, tracing the contacts those students had and reaching out to families to break the news.

Nurses at each of the county’s schools log on for a weekly meeting with public health to get updates on changes to health orders and quarantine and isolation guidelines. These meetings have almost become a bit of a therapy session for some of the nurses, giving them a chance to talk about the work that is consuming their lives, which none of them got into school nursing to do.

“It’s like this secret society,” said Patty Oakland, director of health and wellness for Steamboat and Emerald Mountain Schools. “As a school nurse, you are really an island — you’re the only person in your school who is really focused on health.”

Having that support, both for the seemingly endless changes to rules and guidelines about schools, and to collaborate with each other has been a vital resource throughout the pandemic Oakland said. On days where she needs to send students home from school — something she does not want to have to do — Oakland said the group helps, because each of them are being put in the same situation.

“Having that support has been huge,” said Anna Davis, school nurse at Hayden School, who said she has been working between 60 and 70 hours a week at some points during the pandemic.

The group also offers them an opportunity to bounce ideas off each other and share what is working for them in their school so the other nurses can improve their own process.

“I don’t think we could have done it without each other,” said Cathy LaPointe, nurse at Steamboat Springs High School and Soda Creek Elementary School. “It has not been an easy time, not for anybody.”

Communication goes both ways, with public health sometimes learning of a case first and reaching out, or the nurses learning about it from a parent or teacher and then informing public health of the case.

“We make that contact first, and then I just start doing a total investigation. Were they on a bus? Are they in sports? What classrooms were they in? What was their last day in school?” Davis said, adding that these investigations sometimes can take more than four hours.

Many of these calls happen at night, early before school or on a Sunday, Davis said. As far as hours, the school nurses are on call, round the clock to respond to a potential case and get things figured out before students come back to school the next day. Davis said she has received calls at 8 p.m. on a school night, at 8:30 a.m. on a Sunday and everywhere in between.

“I’ve worked until 10 o’clock some nights, worked eight to 10 hours on a Sunday, you just never know,” Davis said.

The task of calling parents to inform them their student is being quarantined can take awhile, and it is not an enjoyable job.

“It is disheartening for me, because I know calling those parents is pulling kids out of school, which isn’t what I want,” Davis said. “I know that I am doing my job, but at the same time, it makes me upset.”

At the start of the pandemic, Davis said people were generally understanding when she would call them about their child needing to be quarantined, but as COVID-19 fatigue has set in, some people have gotten less gracious.

“People are getting frustrated and tired, and I think their responses are not as kind as they would want them to be when they look back,” Davis said. “I understand their frustration, but some days have been really frustrating for me, too.”

Davis has the help of two administrative assistants to help make the calls, but she said principals in Hayden and Superintendent Christy Sinner also jump in to help her get the work done. Oakland and LaPointe also highlighted help from other administrators, teachers and other school employees who have made their lives easier.

“Our health techs are huge, and then they can handle some of the other stuff while we’re dealing with the COVID stuff, or vice versa,” LaPointe said.

LaPointe said the health techs help the nurses reach out to students to ensure they have what they need to continue schoolwork during quarantine. But they also ensure students have basic things like enough food when they are required to stay home.

“We try to look at the kid as a whole, too, not just say, ‘OK, you are quarantined.’ You have to stay home, but we still want you to learn while you are home. What can we do to support that?” LaPointe said.

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