Connecticut school nurses have been on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic helping to keep schools and communities safe. After months of hard work and long hours, those in the school nursing field in Windsor Locks, Wallingford, Hartford and New Haven are opening up about what it has been like combatting the coronavirus.
Many of their current duties were not in the original job description.
"We switch from our surgical masks to the N95 respirator. We gown up. We have a visor and gloves,” said Lisa Ciaffaglione, school nurse at South Elementary School in Windsor Locks, as she showed the COVID-19 “isolation room” that’s been set up inside her office. It’s a room she has had to use several times over the last few months while trying to care for, and calm, a young child who may have been exposed to the coronavirus.
"It is challenging because they get very scared,” said Ciaffaglione, who also serves as the school district’s nursing supervisor.
This year, school nurses are dealing with much more than their typical responsibilities. Ciaffaglione said she and school nurses all around the state have been quietly rising to the occasion despite the challenges and the health risks they face.
“It has been a challenge,” said Ciaffaglione. "It's a little bit crazy; very busy."
"We may have a case that comes into the building, but with our practices, they're removed, the people are quarantined and isolated as CDC and DPH guidelines recommend,” said Ciaffaglione. “The contact tracing is done and we haven't seen transmission between and amongst the staff and students."
Windsor Locks, a district of four schools with more than 1,800 students, has six school nurses.
Ciaffaglione said the work of her team has prevented additional spread of the virus within the community.
"Being able to be that support system for them and guide them through the process is another one of the many services that we offer this year; always, but especially this year,” she said.
"We had to do everything we normally do plus now COVID,” said Kathy Neelon, who is nurse coordinator for the Wallingford system. “Sometimes 10-hour days, 12-hour days, seven days a week,” she said.
Neelon, who is also president of the Association of School Nurses of Connecticut, said this state is not dealing with a shortage of school nurses like in other states, but the pandemic has presented problems here nonetheless.
"What's difficult now is if somebody gets quarantined or they get sick, then they're out for long periods of time and we've always struggled, districts, with having enough sub nurses,” Neelon said.
"Historically, New Haven has not had a nurse in every school building,” said Jennifer Vazquez, director of nursing at New Haven’s Department of Public Health.
Vazquez said the city is actively recruiting new nurses and training them for when schools re-open. All New Haven students have been learning remotely, which presents a new set of problems to solve.
"Our nurses very often need to be more creative with getting in touch with families because they can't send home a letter in the backpack with the child,” said Vazquez. "They don't gripe about it. They just get up in the morning, they show up and they do it.”
To be able to do this job – and do it well -- Hartford school nurse Maxine Davis said she makes sure to take time to take care of herself.
“You don’t know what challenges you’re going to face, so you embrace the day as it comes,” said Davis.
"We do have enough help but it always seems like there could always be one more person. If I could just have one more person,” Davis said. "There are times when it's okay but there's always just so much to do."
"They really are the front line, as they always have been, but even more so,” said Shawn Parkhurst, superintendent of schools in Windsor Locks. "They are working night and day to support families, to support staff to field questions."
"I really can't thank them enough for all the work they've done above and beyond their normal school day hours,” said Parkhurst.