With most New Hampshire schools just a month from reopening, there's one staff member on many people's minds: the school nurse.
"School nurses are very adept at coaxing children through school," said Paula MacKinnon, president of the New Hampshire School Nurses' Association. "We're accommodating to these kids in school. These kids that are anxious and have stomach aches sometimes. It's a matter of talking through the day, and before you know it, you got them smiling and back to class."
But this year, getting students back to class will no longer be the default. As school nurses become one of the most essential workers in the education system, they're also learning new protocols for how to screen for COVID-19 and reduce potential transmission in school buildings.
This week, the New Hampshire School Nurses' Association finalized its school reopening guidance for nurses, in response to what it says are confusing guidelines from the state.
Paula MacKinnon said the document – submitted for final review to the state health department – clarifies how schools should deal with both suspected and confirmed cases of COVID-19. The document recommends that school nurses get baseline health information from parents and from students’ primary care providers, to distinguish between symptoms of COVID-10 and chronic conditions like asthma, anxiety, or allergies.
And it recommends that, barring any of these chronic conditions, students who come to the school nurse with any symptoms of COVID-19 be sent home immediately.
The state says it has kept school reopening guidelines flexible so that local districts can make appropriate decisions for their communities. But many school leaders say they are struggling to make sense of conflicting guidelines from state and federal officials on face masks, social distancing, and quarantine protocol.
“The [state] guidance has been interpreted in different ways,” MacKinnon said. “We have the CDC saying one thing, and the New Hampshire Department of Health Services saying another.”
“We slowly are getting the brunt of nurses calling us as if we are a regulatory body, and we're not in any sense of the way,” she said.
The state Department of Education has had a vacancy for a school nurse coordinator position since January, but it says that because of the state’s hiring freeze under Emergency Order 2020-37, it is unable to hire someone.
This week, the state Department of Health and Human Services brought on a 'COVID-19 Educational Institution Liaison' to consult with K-12 and higher ed officials and staff on questions of COVID-19 and proper safety protocols.
MacKinnon said that support is going to be neccessary as schools reopen, some as early as next week.
COVID and The Classroom: NHPR wants to understand how this unusual school year is playing out across the state. Every few weeks, we'll ask you to answer a new question. The latest: How has going back to school been different for you this year? Give us a few examples here to help us tell the story.