From COVID tests and contact tracing to angry parents, school nurses say it's hard to keep up

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A finished clean room with stacked chairs in the science room at the Mildred Avenue K-8 School building in Boston's Mattapan, which were being cleaned for the reopening of school on July 9, 2020. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
A finished clean room with stacked chairs in the science room at the Mildred Avenue K-8 School building in Boston's Mattapan. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

It's tough to be a school nurse right now.

Concerns about COVID dominate their days. This year, all students are back in the classroom, so there's almost no physical distancing. That's even though the highly contagious delta variant continues to spread.

WBUR's All Things Considered host Lisa Mullins spoke with two school nurses in Massachusetts to hear about the challenges they face every day.

Cathryn Hampson is the supervisor of health services for the North Middlesex Regional School District, which includes the towns of Townsend, Pepperell and Ashby and has about 3,000 students. Hampson is also the school nurse at a pre-school in Townsend.

Linda Cahill is the nursing supervisor for Brockton Public Schools, which has about 15,000 students in 23 schools.

Cahill and Hampson say they're seeing more students test positive for COVID than they did last school year. That's the case in many districts. The state says there's also more testing going on than last school year.

Interview Highlights

On the stress of the current situation, which Hampson says she doesn't think is sustainable for her and the nurses she supervises:

Hampson: "At this point in the year ... they're already exhausted. They're already working 10 and 12-hour days, some of them, to try and keep up on all of the work ... And they're already feeling very overwhelmed, stressed.

"At one of our elementary schools, they had two positive cases that resulted in 32 close contacts; out of those 32 close contacts, like, 28 would do "test and stay" every morning. And, so, the two nurses would be expected to test the 28 students and staff members on entry to school before they could go to work and go to to their classroom ... So the students who are unvaccinated, they can choose to stay in school during their quarantine period if they're a close contact, and they have to test negative every single morning. Outside of school, they need to be quarantining and following the traditional quarantine at home."

On what it's like to manage all of the demands, from testing students for the coronavirus to treating kids' other medical needs:

Hampson: "The other things that we typically do — taking care of diabetic patients ...  medications, seeing students who are sick on a daily basis. Now, any student that comes in sick needs to be seen by the nurse, and she needs to do an assessment and decide, 'Are these symptoms COVID-like? Does this student need to go home and be tested? ... And right now, what have we got? We've got seasonal allergies, so everybody has a runny nose, [is] congested, [has] a cough.

"We are shuffling around staff. I [am the school nurse] at a preschool, so we start a little bit later. So the schools that are testing earlier, I go to first. I help them do their testing, and then I come to my school to cover my school for the day."

On what falls by the wayside:

Hampson: "The time to get to know my kids. I miss the opportunity to sit in my office and read a book with a student that's waiting for a parent to come pick them up. I miss the chance to sit with parents and console them if that's what they need, or encourage them, or teach them about a new health condition their child might have, because so much of the day is consumed with COVID."

Cahill: "It's difficult. My day starts with checking the COVID cases and letting the nurses know where those cases are, so they can make sure the kids aren't in school. And if they are, they need to go home. And then [school nurses are] identifying close contacts as well ... So it's a lot busier, and we're trying to get more help. We've added some positions, but they still aren't hired yet. So it's hit the ground running every day, and the nurses are really stretched out very thin ... Hopefully, by the end of this year, we'll be in a better place once the vaccination gets approved for the younger kids."

On what they would ask of parents, to help school nurses:

Cahill: "My message to the parents is, if your child is sick, please stay home. And if you are awaiting a test for COVID, do not send the child to school until you get that test result back ... They're sending their kids to school awaiting a test, and then the test turns out positive. So then they infect more children when they come to school."

Hampson: "I would also add to that: please remember that we are following protocols. While I know a lot of parents are frustrated, and all of us are very tired of this, we just need to remember to be kind to one another and as edifying as possible throughout all of this ... I just see an increasing number of people who — their frustration and their anger over a lot of different things related to COVID has escalated to the point where it spills over in how they treat and talk with others. This week alone, I've dealt with several parents whose frustration has left them yelling at me and my nurses."

On the root of parents' frustrations:

Hampson: "There's probably multiple roots, honestly, but I think it's some frustrations with belief systems and a lot of false ... resources out there have led parents to believe that COVID is not real, we do not need to mask, we should not be quarantining ... Many people have missed a lot of work over the last year and a half, and now you're telling them they have to be out of work again. So I just have noticed, overall, less kindness and understanding this year than we encountered last year ... And I guess I would just encourage people to just take a deep breath and talk with us."

This segment aired on October 1, 2021.


Headshot of Lisa Mullins

Lisa Mullins Host, All Things Considered
Lisa Mullins is the voice of WBUR’s All Things Considered. She anchors the program, conducts interviews and reports from the field.


Headshot of Lynn Jolicoeur

Lynn Jolicoeur Producer/Reporter
Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.



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