NJ school nurses juggle COVID with cuts
Before the first student arrived at Bobby’s Run Elementary School at around 7:30 a.m., school nurse Kathy Barbieri was busy checking her list.
This is the screening report that parents are encouraged to submit before sending their children to Lumberton School. Next, she encounters walkers lined up socially at a distance at a side door to ensure that only those wearing masks have been allowed to enter the sprawling building.
“Yeah, you’re okay,” said Barbieri, a nurse for more than three decades, ushering a student inside. To another youth: “Pull that mask off before you go inside. “
For the third year in a row, school nurses are on the front line of the pandemic, still charged with additional tasks related to the COVID-19 protocol as schools attempt to keep students and staff safe. Like other states, New Jersey faces a shortage of national school nurses that has made the job even more difficult.
“The nurses went above and beyond,” said Lumberton Township school principal Joe Langowski. “They are amazing.”
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New Jersey, which has about 2,700 nurses in public schools, requires at least one certified nurse in each district. This means that not all schools have a full-time nurse, and in some cases nurses are assigned to more than one school. Pennsylvania requires students to have access to nursing services, but many schools also only have part-time nurses.
READ MORE: ‘These are not sores and bandages’: COVID-19 has pushed school nurses to the front line
Langowski said his Burlington County K-8 district with 1,100 students has a nurse in each of its three schools, and the district recently hired two replacement nurses to help with the workload. The days for Barbieri, however, remain eventful.
This week, Bobby’s Run had 33 students in quarantine due to possible exposure, and two confirmed cases, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard.
Statewide, New Jersey has experienced 39 school outbreaks so far this year, with 219 confirmed cases of COVID-19 linked to schools. Camden County has seen two outbreaks (three or more linked cases among students or staff), while Burlington and Gloucester counties have reported none.
Barbieri, a former emergency and intensive care nurse, spends much of her time dealing with COVID-related issues while juggling traditional responsibilities of managing student health care needs – administering drugs, healing cuts and bruises and perform health exams. Still, she says she sees about half the number of students who came to see her every day before the pandemic. Teachers are now equipped with kits and can take care of the smallest things in class – bandages, loose teeth – sending only the more serious ones to the nurse to limit exposure, she said.
After pausing for the Pledge of Allegiance over the speaker system, Barbieri closes the front door at 8 a.m. and rushes into his office to begin answering phone calls from anxious parents. The first reported that her daughter was showing symptoms of coronavirus.
“The fact that she can’t smell is a red flag,” Barbieri said. She asked the mother to take a COVID-19 test for her daughter or to quarantine her for 14 days. Barbieri had a younger brother who attends the same school removed to be taken out of the classroom and directed to the isolation room to await a return home.
If positive results come back for both, Barbieri should seek the contacts. So she obtained the classroom plans for the two students. The school, which accommodates more than 300 students, keeps them at least three feet apart, with their desks facing forward, and requires them to wear masks except when eating.
A few minutes later, a latecomer is sent by reception to be checked by Barbieri. While signing the student slip, she continued to speak with the parent on the phone and interviewed the student.
” Why are you late ? Barbieri asked the girl. She replied, “My father’s fault.
About 15 minutes later, the parent arrived to pick up his other daughter, and Barbieri used disinfectant to wipe down the isolation room. She turned on an industrial air filter to recycle the air and closed the door. She has scheduled CPR training for the district she will lead.
At 9 a.m., Barbieri answered several more phone calls, attended to a student complaining of a migraine, and wrote an attendance report for the absent students. Then a boy walks into the office to report that he had a temperature of 100.3 the day before and that he was not feeling well.
Barbieri put on a face shield and escorted the boy to the isolation room. His temperature was high and he was congested with a cough, so he would be sent home until he had no fever for 24 hours.
“It has been probably the most stressful time of my career,” said Barbieri. “It’s a major balancing act that tries to keep everyone safe. “
Before lunch, Barbieri treated more students with a variety of ailments: a loose tooth, a cut, a sports injury, an upset stomach, and a tearful, melancholy girl who perked up after Barbieri’s let her mother call. She also performed a blood sugar test for a student with diabetes, completed vaccination forms and supervised a health exam.
There was a light moment with a 9 year old boy who came to inject himself with insulin. When her blood sugar was lower than she liked, he told Barbieri to “use his superpowers” to fix it.
“Is it fun to be a nurse?” ” He asked. She replied, “I love it. “
When it comes to making tough decisions to keep students safe in the Camden School District, seasoned school nurse Robin Cogan asks: what would I do for my own children? The mother of two divides her day between three kindergartens.
“Right now, school nurses are de facto health services,” said Cogan, a nurse for 21 years. “Schools are looking to them, and it has become more than a full-time job.”
Cogan pressured school officials to bring back the nursing aides who were made redundant when schools closed in 2020. The district announced this week that it has hired three full-time floating nurses. and two part-time orderlies to help with the workload. The assistants will help with contact tracing and administrative tasks.
“We don’t have time to guess at the moment. We want to cover everything the kids need, ”Cogan said.
Each Camden school has at least one nurse and about a third has two nurses assigned. They manage the health needs of approximately 6,300 students.
“They are definitely unsung heroes,” said Superintendent Katrina McCombs.
To help cope with work, Paulsboro School nurse Janice Esters begins each day with a prayer, “Lord, help me through this day.” Unlike last year, she learned to take care of herself and now typically leaves school for her lunch hour and no longer works three hours after the break time.
“You almost feel like you’re drowning,” said Esters, 58, of West Deptford. “You can never catch up.”
A former home care nurse, Esters transferred this year to Lundenslager Elementary School and covered Billingsport Elementary School until the district hired a replacement nurse. One of the biggest challenges is contact tracing, she said.
“It can go on all day,” said Esters, a 34-year-old nurse.
Esters said she wanted parents to understand that nurses try to keep everyone safe and sometimes have to make unpopular decisions, including sending athletes home.
“We don’t want people to be mad at us,” she said. “Our main job is to keep our schools safe and healthy.”