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Poplarville’s school nurses have been integral in the pandemic

From contact tracing to explaining quarantine procedures, school nurses have had one of the busiest years of their careers.

The Poplarville School District added a fourth school nurse this year, so that the high school and middle school would each have a full time nurse on their campus. Even with an additional nurse, all four stay busy caring for students, making phone calls to parents and staying up to date on the changing guidance from the CDC.

Julie Tyner is in her 22nd year at the Upper Elementary School.

“We thought we knew what a health pandemic was when we had H1N1 in 2009,” said Tyner.

But taking on a brand new disease has been no easy task.

“It’s been crazy. For me, the most challenging thing with COVID is that it mimics so many other illnesses.”

In years past, if the nurses saw a child with a headache and sore throat, they might suspect strep throat. If a child was complaining of a headache and nausea they might lay down for a while in the nurse’s office before feeling well enough to return to class.

This school year nurses can’t always use their diagnostic skills, said Middle School of Poplarville nurse Melissa Darden, because if a child has two COVID symptoms they have to be sent home and must get a COVID test, to make sure the virus doesn’t have a chance to spread within the school.

Tyner had to send three students home with fever on Monday. So far, that vigilance has paid off. The district has only had one recorded instance of COVID being transmitted within a school, said Superintendent Konya Miller. Most of the COVID cases in the district have come from student or staff activities outside of school hours.

COVID-19 cases within the district have mirrored the trends within the community at large, said Tyner. As case numbers have declined within Pearl River County, the schools have also seen a decline in new cases.

With social distancing, nurses aren’t able to physically interact with students often.

“Sometimes little girls come in and they just need a hug, and I can’t do that,” said Darden. “You kind of have to talk them through it, when before you loved them through it.”

Poplarville Lower Elementary School nurse Michelle Recatto misses conducting hands on lessons about health topics in the classroom. The elementary school has adapted. Instead of being in the classrooms, she shares a video message on health topics as part of the morning announcements. Her latest video on sunburns should prepare students for spring break.

“They get time with me, but I don’t get to interact with them as much.”

Poplarville High School nurse Kayla Avalon picked a challenging year to become a school nurse. Avalon has been in nursing for 15 years, but wanted to be more involved with the community so became a school nurse. According to her fellow nurses, she’s stepped up to the challenge. Avalon said the other three district nurses have shown her the ropes.

“I thank God for you every day,” said Darden, who used to split her time between the middle and high school.

“I don’t think we’d be open today if we didn’t have these ladies,” said Superintendent Konya Miller.

The collaboration goes beyond having nurses in the school buildings. The school nurses also rely on support and collaboration with health care providers in the community, who have developed permission forms to make sure school nurses can quickly get copies of student COVID test results needed to get them back in the classroom, and who are quick to call the school nurses to confirm quarantine or isolation information parents are confused about.

This collaborative approach started before the school year began in fall 2020. Teachers, nurses, parents and health care providers had small group meetings to help develop recommendations for the district’s reopening, said Recatto.

Recatto thinks that early collaboration has been helpful, alongside the district’s transparency with COVID numbers. The district offers a spreadsheet with updated numbers of COVID positive staff and students directly on its website. All public schools are required to report case numbers to the state department of health, which posts them online. Many students who started the school year online returned to in person classes.

“That shows confidence with school, that we’re dealing with it in a way that makes them feel safe,” said Recatto.

Every morning, the nurses start their day by checking a shared spreadsheet of COVID cases so they can work on tracing contacts of positive cases. On Fridays they attend Mississippi Department of Health webinars to stay up to date on restrictions and guidance.

Along with caring for students, the nurses have been a sounding board for teacher concerns about the vaccine, said Darden. The teachers want reliable sources of information, like peer reviewed studies and scientific articles, Tyner said. So the nurses research vaccine information and send it along to concerned teachers.

They’ve also helped vulnerable staff members schedule vaccine appointments with health care providers, said Recatto.

With COVID-19 cases on the decline locally, the nurses are hopeful students and families will continue to practice precautions over spring break so the numbers do not rise again.