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Busy To Begin With, NC School Nurses Get Ready For Students To Return Amid Pandemic


As some schools welcome students back during the pandemic, it’s likely that the  only healthcare provider on campus- will be the school nurse. And in North Carolina more than half serve more than one school.

On a Tuesday afternoon in mid-July, members of the Henderson County School Board,  standing 6 feet apart in the nearly empty school administration auditorium  - faced the flag  and with right hands draped across chests, recited the pledge of allegiance - kicking off what would turn out to be a more than 4-hour meeting as the group  - with input from educators, school officials and the community -  struggled to figure out the district’s  fall plan .    "This COVID epidemic is going to absolutely really show how much we need a nurse in every school," says school nurse supervisor Kim Berry.  She oversees the 17  nurses who serve the 23 schools in the Henderson County district who manage everything from medication to potential disease outbreaks, and who this fall - will be on the frontlines of fighting off coronavirus in schools.  “There's a lot of discussion about how how you keep the areas separate, routine care versus -  COVID?  How do you triage between and what are the requirements for those rooms and ventilation? Obviously, PPE is a big conversation about, you know, how do you get it?”

Guiding those conversations across the  state, is Ann Nichols, North Carolina’s school nurse health consultant.  Based in Raleigh, Nichols and her team host regular regional conference calls with school nurses in an effort to help them tackle the ever-growing list of school in the age of coronavirus questions.  "A common thread is anxiety, fear of the unknown, and that is a natural human response. Until we have entered a period when we have schools that have students in place, it really is hard to know what that might exactly look like and in all your planning sometimes.  You anticipate things but maybe you don't anticipate them exactly how they work. That's, that's just a part of life, not just a part of COVID-19." 

Nichols says as the coronavirus wave made its way to North Carolina last spring, school nurses across the state stepped into action, working with local health departments on mitigation and response efforts,  providing support to emergency feeding and childcare programs  - and offering input that helped shape the state’s public health toolkit for k-12 schools.   As the first day of in class school or online school draws near, nurses are now focusing on things like training support staff and figuring out how to open on-line office hours for students who will stay home.  "So there is no there is going to be no perfect system and of course, there is no way to guarantee anything but I do think that we are trying to address as much as possible protecting school nurses and the people who are working in collaboration who are doing this frontline piece in the schools."

The state is providing two months worth of PPE supplies for each school nurse and a support system.  And while Nicholls says she’d like to see North Carolina follow the recommendation by The National Association of School Nurses  -and have a nurse in every North Carolina School, she’s confident in the nurses staffed on campuses across the state are prepared to handle this new challenge.

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.