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‘It’s Unsettling’: Lack of COVID Safety Protocols Already Overwhelming School Nurses

‘It’s Unsettling’: Lack of COVID Safety Protocols Already Overwhelming School Nurses

Florida’s Hillsborough County Public Schools, the eighth largest school district in the United States, has had to isolate or quarantine more than 13,485 students and employees since the start of August, and more than 2,650 of them have tested positive for Covid-19. In response, the Hillsborough County school board ordered a more restrictive mask mandate Wednesday after hours of debate, defying Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order that masking decisions be made by parents.

While teachers are receiving the brunt of anger from parents regarding masks–those same teachers report their students almost never complain, it’s always the parents–a forgotten group on the front lines are school nurses, who are now finding their already strained resources overwhelmed or fully depleted. With fewer tools at their disposal, school nurses nationwide are expressing frustration and exhaustion even as the academic year is only just beginning.

Tustin, CA – August 11: Students listen to their teacher during their first day of transitional kindergarten at Tustin Ranch Elementary School in Tustin, CA on Wednesday, August 11, 2021. (Photo by Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

But it is especially difficult in states like Florida and Texas, where the governors, DeSantis and Greg Abbott, both Republicans, have refused to allow school districts to require masks — even after Abbott recently tested positive for Covid. They are the most notable states to have done so; the Republican governors and state leaders in Arizona, Iowa, Utah, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and other states have put up roadblocks, as well.

At many schools across the country, school nurses often develop mitigation strategies, contact tracing, and case management protocols. They conduct Covid testing and even help with vaccine administration. They also are operating as public health educators for students, parents, and staff members and often take point on communicating and explaining masking, vaccinations, and public health guidance.

The stress is taking its toll, especially as thousands of kids in states with outbreaks are having to quarantine in response to the quickly spreading delta variant. It has all come to a head as schools reopen and state political leaders remain opposed to mask mandates and other safety precautions. Adding to the lack of leadership is a lack in school nurses as well. The National Association of School Nurses conducted a workforce study five years ago which showed that about a quarter of schools in the U.S. operated without a dedicated school nurse.

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“School nurses here are facing a moral dilemma because the protocols that are in place and coming from the state don’t align with their values, their training, general scientific opinion, CDC guidance or the position of the American Academy of Pediatrics,” said Lisa Kern, the director of the Florida Association of School Nurses. “It’s unsettling.”

Some school districts like Hillsborough’s are standing firm against their state leaders, however. In Texas, one school has made masks part of its dress code to circumvent Abbott’s executive order. Larger districts, such as the ones that serve Dallas, Austin and most recently Houston, have enacted mandates despite Abbott’s requirements.

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