CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A cough didn’t use to send a child to the nurse’s office, but in the era of COVID-19, it could send children to an isolation room. It comes as schools find ways to identify potential cases of the virus and try to prevent it from causing an outbreak.
“We have a lot of different phases going on with our nurses with our other support staff trying to ensure that if we did come across a situation that we have to deal with that we’re planning and prepared,” said Joe Burke, spokesperson for the Fort Mill School District.
When Fort Mill returns to school on August 31, it will be a mix of remote and in-person instruction.
Burke says they have created “COVID response teams” lead by a nurse at every school.
“Let’s say we had a student that all of a sudden started presenting symptoms during the day,” Burke said. “[The team has] specific protocols and processes they are going to follow to move a student to an isolation room until they can talk with their parents to get them picked up.”
Fort Mill is fortunate enough to have a school nurse assigned to each school; shortages continue to plague larger school districts like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
Superintendent Earnest Winston cited those vacancies as a key factor in recommending a full-remote return to school.
According to a presentation at an August County Commission meeting, CMS school nurse shortages began spiking in March.
In September and December, there were 19 nurse vacancies. Around the time schools moved to remote learning in March, the number of vacancies rose to 27. It climbed to 36 in June at the end of the school year.
The number then spiked to a 3-year-high of 41, according to the August 10 projections.
Because of those shortages, it is unlikely there will be a 1:1 ratio of nurses and schools when CMS resumes in-person operations, according to Mecklenburg County Spokesperson Rebecca Carter.
“There will be a school nurse assigned to support every CMS school,” Carter wrote in a statement to WCNC. “However, every school will not have a dedicated school nurse in the building daily due to existing school nurse vacancies and/or approved leave.”
CMS recently began an intense recruitment effort with the county health department. New hires will begin onboarding in August, Carter said. That recent hiring wave will bring the number of openings to 34.
In South Carolina, nursing shortages continue to prove to challenge as well.
South Carolina Superintendent of Schools Molly Spearman recommended districts have a nurse in every school. A recent report found that 166 schools across the state do not have a nurse; dozens more have nurses that split their time between multiple schools.
Lancaster County is in the process of hiring its remaining few nursing vacancies, according to Bryan Vaughn, director of safety and transportation for the district.
“They are a rare commodity,” Vaughn said, adding, “They are one of the most important positions in the building.
Nurses on the district and school level are designing the office space, guiding the PPE requests, and leading the school response to the medical care for students who may be displaying symptoms, at Indian Land Middle School, according to Principal Chris Thorpe.
“I am not a nurse, I’m not a doctor or any of that,” Thorpe said. “I can educate kids all day long but I can’t tell you what’s going on medical-wise with a kid… That’s where you gotta trust your nurses to be able to tell you ‘we need to do it this way.’”