COVID-19 pandemic changes the role of school nurses in Georgia

Michelle Ammons started her first year as a school nurse assessing stomach aches, providing inhalers, and soothing playground injuries.

But just several months in, her role transformed dramatically at Hayes Elementary School in Cobb County. Every visit suddenly carried so much at stake.

Now, Ammons needs to determine: "Is this allergies? Is this Johnny wanting to get out of class? Or is this truly, potentially COVID-19 like symptoms?"

School nurses were thrust into the spotlight in 2020 as the front lines to districts’ COVID-19 response.

"I was in intensive care in 2009 when we had the swine flu," Ammons recalled. "We thought things were bad back then, but it doesn't even compare to the [coronavirus]. I couldn’t have foreseen anything like this."

Nurses like Ammons are working hand-in-hand with county health departments to develop pandemic safety plans, educate employees and families, and chiefly, contact tracing.

Ammons will spend anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours tracking possible COVID exposures … seven days a week.

"There are many families that have multi-generational people living in their homes, and so, of course, I worry about them," Ammons said. "I want to make sure they know that’s why contact tracing is so important."

Sandy Evans, who has worked as a school nurse since 2004, agreed. "We work hard to quickly respond," Evans said.

The pandemic renewed calls on the state to fund 200 more school nurse positions.

Melanie Bales, president of the Georgia Association of School Nurses, called it their "biggest torch to raise high."

Roughly one in four schools don’t have an exclusive R.N., according to Bales.

"School health is the hidden healthcare system," Bales said. "Many times school nurses are the only access to healthcare that students may have."

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In the meantime, the three Cobb County nurses refuse to back down from a challenge, taking the pressure and changes in stride.

Evans acknowledged, "I don’t think anyone could have anticipated this," but said it’s in nurses’ nature to power on, preparing and responding the best they can. "That attitude of being prepared for what’s next goes along with nursing," she said.

That determination was echoed by Ammons. "I like challenges, I like to be busy, and I like to learn new things."

They are hopeful for what lies ahead, encouraged by the vaccine roll-out among teachers and the lower COVID-19 case counts.

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