Nurses and health care workers have been overwhelmed and worn down by the worst effects of COVID-19 on their patients, but on the school side, Cache County School District health aides and nurses deliver good news — mostly.
“When I am testing most of the time, probably 95% of the time, I give a negative result,” April Checketts said. “When I come out and I give them a negative result, parents are the ones that are partying in the car like ‘yes, yes!’ They’re so excited. It brings these giant smiles to these parents’ faces. … Even the student is like, ‘Yes, I can go back to school.’”
Checketts was hired as the part-time health aide for Nibley Elementary, but when the Utah Department of Health announced the “Low Risk Test and Return” guidelines — which allow students and teachers who have been exposed to the virus at school to end quarantine after 7 days instead of 14 if they have no symptoms and test negative — Checketts was “deputized” as a COVID-tester at Ridgeline High School.
The National Association of School Nurses recommends 1 nurse to 750 students in the general population, but 1 nurse to 225 students who require daily services or interventions. Utah was already below the national average nurse-to-student ratio at 1 to 3,000 students.
Cache County, with 6 nurses to more than 18,000 students, is in the same boat. But to help offset the nursing shortage, part-time health aides, like Checketts, were placed in all elementary schools. Due to COVID-19, their hours have been bumped up and health aides have been placed in secondary schools as well.
In addition to serving the medical needs of students throughout the day, scheduling for and administering the rapid tests, Checketts and all the other health aides and nurses in the district serve as contact tracers when the Bear River Health Department notifies them of a student who tested positive who wasn’t part of the rapid testing.
The joy and cheering from students and their families over negative tests help make up for the fact that nearly every employee at the district is working hours well beyond the typical 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on a late day.
For example, when on call, Heidi Bowler, a district nurse, can work until at least 9 p.m.
“It’s really been a team effort,” Bowler said. “We want the school to be open, we want them to be safe and the kids, they want to be at school. They get sent home for a week or two weeks and they’re just dying to come back.”
And in the hour-and-a-half where Checketts, Ashcroft and Bowler sat down with The Herald Journal on Thursday, another teacher tested positive, and secretaries had to scramble to get a substitute lined up for the next couple of weeks.
“COVID is a little bit stressful in that way,” Checketts said, “but on the same token, it’s also brought a greater awareness for us to just kind of protect these kiddos and keep them safe for what they’re dealing with everyday.”
While in the past, a stuffy nose or a bit of a cough was no big deal, now they’re potential symptoms for the coronavirus. Though at first parents were upset at having their children sent home with seemingly minor symptoms, the majority have come around to seeing it as one of the easiest ways to make sure school spread of any illness — not just COVID-19 — stays low and schools stay open.
“I want my kids in school just as much as Heidi wants her kids in school, and all those things, so we’re trying our hardest to keep these schools open,” Checketts said. “And if that means that if when our kids are sick, they have to be home and learning online, then that’s what we’re going to do so that we can keep everybody healthy and safe.”
Bowler said staying home when sick is the biggest way to gain control of the virus’s spread.
Tim Smith, a spokesperson for CCSD, said masks, distancing and enhanced hygiene protocols have been instrumental in keeping schools open as the transmission rate in schools, according to the rapid test’s positivity rate, is coming in at about 1-2%. In Cache County, the positivity rate is above 27% — indicating a high rate of community spread.
Ridgeline is, so far, the only school in the county to have been moved remote due to more than 15 active cases of COVID-19, and the Green Canyon Drill Team was shut down on Thursday due to a small outbreak. Smith said Green Canyon and Mountain Crest are “hovering between 10-15” and are being watched closely.
Nibley Elementary has also had its share of tragedy throughout the course of the pandemic. Former Principal Kelly Rindlisbacher — known affectionately to his students as “Mr. R.” — lost his battle with COVID-19 on Aug. 7. Nibley’s new principal, Dee Ashcroft, came out of retirement to fill the position.