School nurses navigate response to COVID-19 on top of normal student caseload

Updated: Nov. 16, 2020 at 9:11 PM EST
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KERSHAW COUNTY, S.C. (WIS) - Nurses have put themselves on the front lines since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that includes school nurses. They’re working extra hours to make sure students and teachers stay healthy.

Elizabeth Starling has been a nurse for 20 years and has worked at Stover Middle School in Kershaw County for 12 years. Her job has changed a lot over the past two months.

“We just didn’t know what to expect when we started,” explained Starling.

On top of her normal workload, Starling is now the school’s main contact tracer, working to notify students or staff who may have been exposed to the virus.

“That involves tracking down who was close to the positive case, within six feet for fifteen minutes or more, and it may involve watching a bus video,” she said. “It may also involve getting some seating charts and talking to several people.”

Starling is responsible for monitoring students' and teachers' symptoms every day, which she says has been one of the most challenging parts of her job.

“We do follow the DHEC exclusion guidelines to keep kids in school because that’s our job,” said Starling. "As school nurses, we want them here, and we want them to be healthy, so they can learn. “We really try hard not to exclude them.”

Her normal day job has spilled over into her evenings and weekends, as she and her colleagues try to limit the spread of the virus.

“We have a wonderful group of nurses that have been and are willing to do that to make sure that our students are safe,” Starling noted.

Another staff member assists Starling, watching students in the isolation room, while she checks for symptoms and distributes medication in her office.

“We couldn’t do it on our own. Honestly, we are very fortunate to have our health room assistants,” she said.

Kershaw County has also hired four additional school nurses since the start of the year, so Starling says she and her colleagues can now focus their efforts on one school instead of traveling to two.

While DHEC is reporting more than 3,000 cases of COVID-19 associated with South Carolina schools, Stover Middle has only had three cases -- one teacher and two students who are both learning virtually.

“For the most part, our students have been wonderful,” Starling explained. “They want to follow the rules because they want to be at school.”

Starling says things seem to be running smoothly right now, but she and her colleagues are concerned about what the winter might bring.

“We don’t know yet what COVID-19 and the flu look like together,” she said. “We haven’t seen that yet, so that is a fear for a lot of people.”

Starling is asking parents to please keep your child at home if they are not feeling well. She says that’s vital to keeping schools open and safe. She’s also hopeful schools will receive COVID-19 rapid tests to be able to pinpoint who has the virus sooner.

Kershaw County has an online COVID-19 dashboard to track active cases: click or tap here to see it.

Right now, three students and eight staff members have tested positive for the virus. The dashboard also shows 107 students and three teachers currently in quarantine.

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