School nurses take on larger role in pandemic

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By Lance Reynolds, Republican-American

Vicki DeLucia, head school nurse at Woodland Regional High School in Beacon Falls, stands in her office Jan. 22. -JIM SHANNON/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

BEACON FALLS — By 10 a.m. most school days, Vicki DeLucia, head school nurse at Woodland Regional High School, already has called the Naugatuck Valley and Chesprocott health districts about eight times to discuss COVID-19 issues.

While on those phone calls, DeLucia looks across the hallway into a room that served as a world languages classroom last year. That room now has four cots spaced 4 feet apart with dividers between each. This is where students go when they show COVID-19 symptoms.

The state-mandated isolation rooms have been used less frequently than anticipated, but school nurses in Greater Waterbury and Litchfield County say they’re connecting with local and state health departments more than ever.

“We are pretty much on 24/7,” DeLucia said. “We check our emails all the time. The whole region seems to have our cellphones. You just have to stay on top of it.”

School nursing amid the pandemic has gone back to its roots, said Dorothy Mitchell, head nurse at Northwestern Regional High School in Winsted.

The practice of school nursing began in 1902 when New York City schools hired Lina Rogers to help combat high absenteeism in the country’s largest school district. She communicated with families about communicable diseases, according to the National Association of School Nurses.

THE FOCUS ON COMMUNITY OUTREACH, rather than clinical, hands-on practice, is what school nurses are doing now, Mitchell said. Before school started in September, Mitchell said she created videos relating to the virus for families and educators.

“We are back to being really involved in the community and trying to keep the community safe from communicable diseases,” said Patricia Severson, Mitchell’s assistant. “It’s weird.”

DeLucia attributed the increased communication with local and state health departments to contact tracing and tracking of virus cases. The pandemic has led school nurses to focus on the health of students and educators outside of school hours, she said.

Contact tracing can take several days after a positive case is reported, said Kristina Douglas, head nurse at Forbes Elementary School in Torrington and nurse supervisor for the district.

When a student is diagnosed with COVID, Douglas said, she looks into details on the case, including when symptoms started, and who they may have come into contact with two days before the positive test. That information is then sent to central offices to determine close contacts.

“Parents end up getting upset sometimes because by the time we do find out (of a positive case) and alert everyone, sometimes it’s a week since their child was potentially exposed to COVID,” Douglas said.

DeLucia is a COVID-19 liaison for Region 16, which serves Beacon Falls and Prospect, with Prospect Elementary School head nurse Allison Sweeney. DeLucia said principals in her district refer staffers to them when they have virus-related questions on the weekend.

“We work in an educational setting, so everyone’s comfort level is education, yet we are in the middle of a health crisis,” she said. “Many staff members, who have an educational foundation, (experience) anxiety because they don’t have a medical background. We are a place for them to come and talk to.”

SCHOOL NURSES SAID THEY HAVE SEEN very little to no in-school transmission of the virus since schools opened in the fall. About 1,060 students and 299 educators had the virus in the state on Jan. 27, according to the state’s latest virus case count in schools. The state reached its peak for virus cases in schools on Jan. 13, when 1,561 students and 498 educators were infected. There are 527,829 students and 52,005 full-time certified staffers spread across the state’s 205 public school districts, according to data from the state Department of Education.

Douglas said none of the students she has sent home due to sickness have ended up being diagnosed with COVID-19. Students who have tested positive, she said, have contracted the virus from a parent who had gotten it from work or in a social setting.

At elementary schools in New Hartford, Colebrook, Barkhamsted and Norfolk, and at the middle and high schools, screening areas have been set up outside the nurse’s office, Mitchell said.

“You always have to be creative in nursing,” Mitchell said. “That’s part of nursing. Most school nurses have risen to that challenge and are handling it well.”

Sandy DiBella, head nurse at Booth Free School in Roxbury, has seen her school stay open to full in-person learning since last August. She said teachers call her office when a student needs to come and get checked on. Normally, students came on their own without prior notice, DiBella noted.

“There’s a sense of normalcy because all of our children are in every day, and it’s wonderful to see them all every day,” she said. “We greet the children every morning, we check their temps, and we say ‘Good morning’ to them. We see how happy they are to be with their friends.”

DeLucia and DiBella said they both received the COVID-19 vaccine and encouraged their teachers and staffers to receive it when they get the opportunity. Teachers are included in the current phase 1B for vaccination in the state and are expected to become eligible for it in February.

“It was the first time in a really long time I felt hopeful,” DeLucia said. “I felt like, ‘OK, here we are, the start of hopefully changing what is going on.’”