Role of school nurses expands during pandemic

Oversee medical waiting rooms for those with symptoms

THERE ARE A MULTITUDE of reasons to go to the school nurse — a scraped knee, an asthma attack on the playground, a case of chickenpox, symptoms of the flu, a nap for a migraine. Students go to the school nurse for physical, mental, and emotional support.

Now, with  70 percent of 400 districts planning to return to school fully in-person or in a hybrid model, you can add to the list keeping the pandemic at bay, and guiding parents through new health protocols.

State education officials say that schools must have a designated medical waiting room for students who display symptoms of COVID-19, including fever and cough. The waiting room is intended to keep them separate from others until they can be picked up by a parent.

A recent guidance from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education suggests school nurses work with local boards of health to develop procedures for several scenarios regarding the designated medical waiting room. These can be staffed by school employees who are CPR/AED certified.

Nurses are required to make sure kids or teachers who test positive for the coronavirus stay home for 10 days and are without fever for 24 hours before returning. They’re also asked to create a process for the delivery and pickup of student medications (imagine a kid needs an insulin shot for diabetes, for instance) with minimal contact.

Nurses’ offices must also make sure school staff members are trained in the donning of personal protective equipment and the safe disposal of it, and the placement of hand sanitizer stations around the school (in public spots because they’re alcohol-based). If the school has access to rapid testing, they’re in charge of that, too.

Patricia Comeau, a Methuen school nurse and spokesperson for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said she is expected to trace students’ coronavirus symptoms, communicate with local boards of health, and follow up on vaccine records. Parents were tying up her phone lines with questions about COVID-19 and the new flu mandate even before the school year started.

At McKinley Middle School, a Boston public school for students who have psychological issues stemming from trauma, one school nurse told WBUR there are several reasons why he doesn’t believe city schools can reopen safely under current guidelines. He cited concerns over air circulation in the buildings and no plan to test all students and staff for COVID-19 before school starts.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

With all the new tasks, some school nurses have pushed for a remote start to classes, citing lack of funding and staffing shortages as key issues that need to be addressed for things to run smoothly.

In Agawam, which is reopening under a hybrid model, the town is collaborating with the Agawam Fire Department and its paramedics to help school nurses. “Unfortunately there is only one nurse and two screening areas,” said Alan Sirois, chief of the Agawam Fire Department to WWLP. “So, at this point, we are staffing all eight schools, four days a week, with paramedics in those screening areas.”