How School Nurses Can Help Turn the Tide On COVID-19

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School nurses have been working hard and overtime consistently to make COVID-19 testing and contact tracing a success in schools while state guidelines for reducing transmission in schools have loosened. School nurses are the primary site facilitators for COVID-19 testing including symptomatic, routine pooled testing and Test and Stay.

Specializes in School Nursing/Pediatrics. Has 30 years experience.

School Nurses In The Spotlight Of COVID-19

How School Nurses Can Help Turn the Tide On COVID-19

Where are We Now?

Here we are rounding the bend of October 2021.  About 20 months into a global pandemic, healthcare has been in a strange place.  While many in healthcare have worked tirelessly caring for COVID-19 patients, those with other health issues other than COVID have been put on the back burner.  Although some practices have been open to all or most patients for a while, there are still some areas where finding a physician who will see you in person has been a feat.  From my own personal experience, I have not been able to see my PCP for almost two years, as he is still concerned about the number of COVID-19 patients he has been treating and how many have died.  He has been seeing me remotely only.  When an issue arose last year with my blood pressure, which I had never had an issue with before, I was told to go to the Emergency Room at my local hospital.  I was much more concerned entering an ER full of sick people than I was seeing my primary care physician in his office fully masked, seeing the risk of getting infected much lower than sitting amongst a room full of sick people.  Needless to say after over two hours I called my PCP and asked him to “just call me in a prescription for something” because I could not handle another minute in this ER where no one was leaving, yet more people kept coming in.   That’s typical of course in any Emergency Room, but the idea of being less than six feet from sick people in an indoor space during a second wave of the pandemic, well, that was just unnerving, to say the least.  People have put off getting the medical attention that they really have needed in the past two years because of fear of contracting COVID-19.  It’s a tragedy that cancers have gone undetected, heart attacks and strokes ignored, and life-saving surgeries put on the back burner.  Preventative care has been just about thrown out the window.

School Children and COVID-19

I am a school nurse in the city of Boston.  When our students were able to return to school at least a few days a week in cohorts last year, some medical practices were still seeing pediatric patients only remotely, so a physical exam consisted of not much more than subjective data.  There were no vital signs performed and vaccines were given out at separate nurse visits only.  Many of these separate appointments were missed.  Some students were still not being seen at all.  Parents were afraid to bring their children anywhere, including to medical or dental appointments, even if they were available.   

So far this school year, most students have been in school full-time and mostly uninterrupted. When schools reopened, the Delta variant caused many worries about how it would play out with crowded classrooms and minimal social distancing.  According to the New York Times October 7, 2021, a majority of the nations’ 50 million public school students have been in classrooms full-time and mainly uninterrupted this fall whether students are masked or unmasked, teachers vaccinated or not.  Infection rates have actually declined 35 percent nationally through the month of September (NT Times, October 7, 2021).  Most students have resumed in-person physical exams and routine vaccine administration.  Many of our students 12 and over have received COVID-19 vaccines as well.

Mitigation Strategies

In Boston, Massachusetts schools, our mitigation protocols have included mask mandates for all staff and students, continued weekly pooled testing for all students whose parents have consented as well as “test and stay” for students who have been determined to be close contacts of a COVID-19 positive person. Test and stay consists of rapid antigen testing daily for one week at school for all students who are either part of a positive pool or who have been determined to have been in close contact with a positive person while in school.  This has omitted the need for entire classes to be quarantined and keeps kids in school and learning.   All staff working in the school must provide proof of vaccination for COVID-19 or proof of a negative PCR test weekly to stay at work or be placed on unpaid administrative leave. 

It is surprising to me how many staff working in schools are hesitant to vaccinate, even at the risk of losing their jobs or the need to go through the hassle of weekly testing and documentation of proof of negative COVID-19 status. Even more startling is the fact that staff are willing to risk their health and the health of others in a setting where social distancing is next to impossible. Schools are now at 100% enrollment with all restrictions lifted except masking.  Persistent online disinformation has been one of the biggest obstacles throughout the vaccine rollout including unproven claims of infertility, altering of one’s DNA, and microchips being added to the vaccine.  Some have religious beliefs and many just completely distrust the government or don’t believe in the science of vaccines. 

Let History Do the Talking

Edward Jenner began his successful use of cowpox material to create immunity to smallpox in 1796.  Louis Pasteur’s 1885 rabies vaccine was next to make an impact on human disease.  Antitoxins and vaccines against diptheria, tetanus, anthrax, cholera, plague, typhoid, tuberculosis and more were developed throughout the 1930s.  By the mid-twentieth century, methods for growing viruses in the laboratory led to rapid discoveries including the creation of polio vaccines.  This was followed by vaccine development for other common childhood diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella, which greatly reduced the burden of disease. 

Here we are now in 2021, still battling this pandemic.  People are still dying.  Some are wishing to change their minds about getting the vaccine once they become very ill, but by then it is too late.  The miracle of science has given us a vaccine to prevent and even eradicate COVID-19, yet so many in America are hesitant to receive the life-saving vaccine.  In a national climate fueled by politics, conspiracy theories, social media and other fears about the seemingly rapid development of a vaccine, we have become a divided nation.  Why can we not look to history and science to make decisions about our health rather than seek out misinformation and folklore on the internet to keep us ever doubting this miracle of medicine?  A lot has changed since the 1930s when technology was not where it is today.  We never doubted the validity of vaccines then when many childhood diseases led to debilitating deformities and abnormalities or even death. 

School Nurses in the Spotlight of COVID-19

School nurses have been working hard and overtime consistently to make COVID-19 testing and contact tracing a success in schools while state guidelines for reducing transmission in schools have loosened.  School nurses are the primary site facilitators for COVID-19 testing including symptomatic, routine pooled testing and Test and Stay.  Massachusetts school nurses are reporting concerns about the health and safety of students with nurses working two jobs simultaneously possibly causing the potential for medication and treatment errors and missing acute health conditions or emergencies.  This causes physical and emotional stress and burnout, resignations, early retirement, leaves of absence and taking sick days.  It has become difficult to find substitute nurses willing to work with these new responsibilities in place.  Some districts are even having difficulty hiring qualified school nurses who have mandatory Department of Elementary and Secondary Education licensure requirements. 

As a school nurse in Massachusetts, I feel the burden of this responsibility.  It can be draining and exhausting.  Needing to take a mental health day has been deemed nearly impossible by the lack of substitute staffing.  Anxiety levels are high among many students in my K-8 school.  For our most vulnerable kids already experiencing anxiety, continued mask-wearing and adherence to school protocols regarding COVID-19 are pushing their stress levels even higher.  I want to be there for every one of them.  I teach them stretching exercises to do in class to reduce headaches and neck and back tension, which affects every grade level.  We do deep breathing exercises next to the open window outside of my office.  We talk about the importance of drinking lots of water, eating breakfast and lunch, getting enough sleep, spending time in nature and staying away from screens as much as possible.  These are things we talk about every day, even without a pandemic.  Sometimes the conversation turns to how COVID-19 has affected us during the past almost two years.  But what is always evident to me is that our youth are living in and accepting a pandemic and doing it with more grace than many of their adult counterparts.   I’ve watched my four-year-old granddaughter (now 5 and in kindergarten) don a mask every day without a single complaint other than why she couldn’t have chocolate doughnuts for breakfast.

An Autumn of Hope

As school nurses, we need to stand strong.  This is our time to show how important our jobs really are.  Many of us have felt unappreciated by the medical community.  We are the ones who sit in our offices waiting to put on a bandaid or take a temperature.  Or so it seems to some.  We have always had to justify our purpose in school buildings, particularly when nurses have been required to cover multiple schools.  Now we are on the cutting edge of turning the tide on COVID-19 through educating the youth that we care for.  Let’s give them the knowledge and tools they need to affect a change in the direction of this disease.  Let’s persevere with confidence in the work we do every day to keep students healthy, at school and learning. They are our future and change truly starts with them.


National Association of School Nurses

Massachusetts School Nurse Organization

New York Times

The History of Vaccines / An Educational Resource by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Patricia (Patti) Purcell, M.ED, RN, BSN has worked for over 26 years as a school nurse and holds a Masters of Education in the field of School Nurse Education from Cambridge College (2008). She began her nursing career in 1991 after obtaining her RN degree from Quincy College. She worked in Geriatric care for two years before transitioning to School Nursing and then went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in Nursing from Curry College in 2003. She also obtained Educator’s Licensure from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in the same year. Patti also worked doing per diem home health nursing from 1994 to 2019.

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2 Comment(s)


Specializes in Specializes in L/D, newborn, GYN, LTC, Dialysis. Has 24 years experience.

Thank you for your perspective and an excellent article. It has occurred to me many times how stressful the school environment must be for school nurses, teachers, para-professionals and parents, not to mention the kids! I appreciate your viewpoint.


Specializes in School Nursing/Pediatrics. Has 30 years experience.

Thank you for your kind words!