CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - As Lowcountry school districts work to welcome students and staff back into classrooms, the role of school nurses is more vital than ever with COVID-19 concerns.
There are more than 1,400 school nurses in South Carolina, taking care of every child with a sniffle or headache who comes into the clinic. This year, symptomatic children and staff will be treated even more carefully.
104 school nurses work for Charleston County Schools with Director of Nursing Services Ellen Nitz.
“Everybody has always loved their school nurse, but I don’t know how much the school used to think how necessary a school nurse was,” Nitz said.
“Now, we’re top of the priority list,” she said. “It’s nice to know that we have risen in the ranks. But what I’ve also told my staff is ‘rest up.' We’re going to work you. You’re going to work really hard this year, harder than you ever have. It’s going to be a challenge.”
Their primary challenge this year is safely overseeing students and staff who are physically coming back into schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Amanda Santamaria, who is the District Nurse Coordinator for Dorchester District Two, says while parents might feel like they’re just starting to get information, their health and safety task force has been working on new protocols for months.
Their plan includes medical grade PPE for the 36 nurses in DD2, temperature checks for visitors and masks for all students, staff, and visitors.
"Our nurses will have a big hand in making sure they're wearing [the masks] properly, not wearing them the wrong way, not taking them off when they're not supposed to, just reinforcing those good habits," Santamaria said.
The nurses in all school districts will be trained to screen sick kids and adults for COVID, based on CDC and DHEC guidelines.
“It’s a laundry list of symptoms,” Santamaria said. “We are anticipating that this year it’s going to be quite difficult to determine who’s sick with something else and who’s sick with COVID. But we’re going to take it and run with it and do the best we can.”
She said she's very confident in her nursing staff.
Santamaria also said they are in the process of identifying an isolation room in every DD2 school to separate potentially positive cases.
CCSD schools simply don't have room for that, Nitz said, so they are designating separate sick areas within school clinics and working with MUSC for guidance.
"We're trying to make sure we always have a plan B or C in our back pocket because that's COVID. We're going to have learn how to adapt to COVID, because it's very clear COVID is not going to be adapting to us," Nitz said.
At least five CCSD nurses will work on in-house contact tracing. They'll be training additional nurses from smaller schools, for example, to also help with that effort.
CCSD is also developing a new website and app to streamline COVID-related documentation and reporting.
All of these new duties are on top of their usual school nurse job of dispensing medicine and caring for kids with cold, flu, asthma and allergies.
CCSD has more than 50,000 students and more than 6,000 staff members, Nitz pointed out.
“It will very much be a team effort to make sure we get this done,” she said.
CCSD needs to hire two more full time nurses and a part time one and then will be fully staffed with a nurse in every school.
The Georgetown County School District has 20 full time nurses in place, including coverage for Howard Adult Education and Optional Program, according to Lead Nurse Laura Tucker. They are also identifying isolation spaces and rooms.
"The GCSD School Nurses have always managed contagious illnesses in our schools and followed DHEC guidelines and protocols," Tucker said. "COVID-19 falls into that, but I think, given the unknowns and uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, school nurses have expanded into an educational and advisory role, even more than before."
GCSD staff will be required to wear a cloth mask or face covering, students age 3 and older will be expected and recommended to wear a mask, and students will be required to wear a mask while on bus or in health room, Tucker added. They'll also be implementing contact tracing.
DD2 and BCSD are fully staffed but are still hiring nurse substitutes to fill in gaps this year.
BCSD is hoping to have eight sub nurses on hand every day. The district spent a half million dollars to order 25, 000 face masks, 10,000 reusable cloth face masks, and 4,500 face shields for adults. That does not include what schools will be acquiring with their own budgets.
"With us being able to come back to school, it's really going to depend on our community. Are we going to do the right things?" said Nitz.
She calls them the 3 W's - Wear our masks, Wash our hands, and Watch our distance.
“It will allow us to at least get our kids back into school and to start getting that normalcy back,” she said.