Gov. Charlie Baker announced plans Wednesday to supply school districts with rapid COVID-19 tests next month in an effort to better stem the spread of the virus and keep kids at school for in-person learning.
The idea was welcomed by school administrators and parents alike, if only as a way to bring a level of predictability to the 2020-21 school year, which so far has been seesawed between in-person and remote learning and a routine-shattering mix of the two. Any move to keep students and teachers safe while providing a more traditional educational environment is certainly welcome. Left unmentioned, however, were the people key to making sure the testing plan works as hoped: school nurses.
The rapid testing program will be just one more challenge for nurses in local schools, who have played a key role in fighting the pandemic since March. After schools shut down in the spring, school nurses shifted their focus to the wider community, working as contract tracing specialists.
With classes back in session, school nurses are seeing their duties expanded even further. They talk with students with chronic illnesses about how to continue their care at home. They answer questions from teachers about how best to share worrisome coronavirus information with their students, and talk to parents about how to keep their children safe at home. And a sniffle from a student that last year would bring a sympathetic pat on the back and a note back to class now sets off a different chain of events.
“Some kids just need a break from class, and I’m a safe place to come to,” Denise DiGiuseppe, head nurse for the Danvers schools, told reporter Erin Nolan. “COVID changed that in that if a student says they have a headache, most days you’d say ‘Why don’t you like down a while and then go back to class?’ But COVID has a lot of very vague, mild symptoms, so we have to be very loose with who we send home.”
That low threshold for dismissal and the trip for a COVID-19 test that follows has irked some parents, but it has meant there have been very few cases of transmission linked back to in-school instruction. The hope is that the rapid tests will reduce the number even further.
School-based health services have often been among the first places administrators look when budgets need to be cut. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, recommend schools have one nurse for every 750 students. Only 40% of school districts nationwide meet that threshold, according to the National Association of School Nurses. Among the many lessons the pandemic has taught us is that school nurses play a key role not just in the lives of the students they serve, but in the community at large.