When she was an intensive care nurse, Shayna Wolf regularly served patients with high levels of need. But after she swapped the ICU for a school-based setting last spring, Wolf discovered that the demands of her work weren’t necessarily lessened.
Because of competing pandemic-related pressures, Wolf’s mornings, days and nights are spent speaking with Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh parents and administrators, as well as medical professionals serving on the Jewish day school’s COVID-19 advisory team.
Each morning, beginning at 5 a.m., Wolf typically receives about a half-dozen emails and texts from parents. The messages are usually inquiries about whether a child, for any number of reasons, can come to school that day, whether a child requires COVID-19 testing and whether a child’s siblings need to stay home, Wolf said.
After answering each message, Wolf travels to Hillel Academy’s Beacon Street building, where in addition to her regular duties — which range from educating classes about poison control or puberty, to seeing individual students in her clinic — she manages a slew of COVID-related tasks.
“Anyone who misses a day of school, I have to reach out to them to see if they need to be tested and see if they can come back to school,” Wolf said.
She also spends time contact tracing, overseeing pool testing and policy making — the latter often occurs in the evening in order to accommodate other COVID-19 advisory team members’ schedules.
Around midnight, parents usually stop sending texts and emails, Wolf said.
Knowing the ins and outs of her neighbor’s lives and receiving constant messages can be challenging, but as a Squirrel Hill resident and Hillel Academy graduate, Wolf said she’s honored to serve her community.
Diane Healy, nurse of Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh, also receives numerous messages on a daily basis.
“Parents don’t call me at night, but I will get texts late evening and calls early in the morning,” Healy said. Before becoming a nurse at Yeshiva last April, “I wasn’t used to being glued to my phone, but now I am.”
In early August 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered guidance for COVID-19 prevention in K-12 schools. In addition to recommending universal indoor masking, the health agency extolled the benefits of vaccination and called it “the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The problem, however, is that most children under the age of 12 are not currently eligible to be jabbed. (It is likely that the FDA will announce emergency use authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 in the coming weeks.) With the contagiousness of the delta variant, and the difficulties of managing a population of both vaccinated and unvaccinated people, school nurses are under significant strain.
“It’s another layer of stress trying to keep everyone healthy,” Healy said. “I think we’re all on the alert and a little more nervous about how we handle episodic care.”
Because children are often asymptomatic, COVID-related concerns can be tricky. Students want to be in school with their friends, and parents would like their children in class, but “you have to tell the parents many times that the child has to stay home and get tested,” Healy said.
Being a school nurse at this point in the pandemic requires a lot of communication with families, students and the community at large, said Donna Weir, Community Day School’s nurse.
“It’s much more hands-on,” she said.
There’s a misconception that school nurses are just slapping Band-Aids on kids and sending them back to class, but it’s “a lot more involved,” Weir said. Ensuring a child’s well-being requires partnering with the health department, physicians and the school’s medical panel, as well as doing “what’s safest for the majority.”
As an example, Weir cited the day school’s recent clinics.
Last year, CDS offered COVID-19 vaccinations to students above age 12, their parents and community members. Several weeks ago, the school arranged for its staff to receive the flu vaccine, and once the COVID-19 vaccine is approved for children above age 5, CDS plans on hosting another clinic, Weir said.
People forget that COVID is still happening
Thanks to funding from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, each of the day schools could hire a nurse last spring. (CDS already had a nurse on staff and used the money to hire a second nurse part-time, according to Jennifer Bails, CDS’ director of marketing and communications.)
Federation funding was enough to cover one year’s expense; however, on Oct. 4, 2021, the Federation’s COVID relief committee gave an additional $50,000 to each day school to use for their “top COVID-related items,” according to Adam Hertzman, Federation’s director of marketing.
Whether the additional $50,000 is spent on a nurse or another pandemic-related cost, “it’s really up to the day schools to determine what their highest areas of needs are,” Hertzman said.
In December 2020, the CDC estimated it would cost between $55 and $442 per student to implement recommended COVID-19 prevention strategies.
There are more than 1,100 students in Pittsburgh’s three day schools combined. Based on the above estimates, it would cost between $60,500 and $486,200 to fulfil the recommended COVID-19 prevention strategies.
Wolf, while speaking from her office at Hillel Academy, said the pandemic’s toll has reached a point where it’s leaving many individuals frustrated.
Parents want their children in school, educators want students in their classrooms and staff members want to come to work, Wolf said. There have been minimal outbreaks and few deaths in this community due to the coronavirus, and people “forget that COVID is still happening.”
With full knowledge that her phone will continue buzzing hours after she returns home, Wolf added that school nurses are doing what they can to help students, parents, teachers and administrators, but it “really is a community effort to keep these kids safe, and we all have to do it together.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.