The Back-to-School Nightmare

Five school nurses on parent protests, sick kids, and school shutdowns in the first month back in classrooms.

Illustration: by Patrick Leger
Illustration: by Patrick Leger

The toll the pandemic has taken on parents, teachers, and health-care workers has been well documented. But comparatively little has been said about how school nurses are handling the return to classrooms.

Now they’re on the frontlines, trying to keep students safe as school districts insist on full reopenings, a decision the CDC began pushing in the spring when case numbers were low and vaccines made normal seem within reach. But now, infections are nearing all-time highs, and students — especially those under 12 who remain unvaccinated — are at even more risk of getting sick thanks to the super-contagious Delta variant. Despite this, at least eight states — including Florida and South Carolina — have moved to ban mask mandates, and mass COVID outbreaks in schools around the country have forced them to close. Even student and staff deaths have not convinced some areas to impose safety measures.

School nurses have borne the brunt of these outbreaks. Almost entirely responsible for contact tracing and quarantine placement as well as their regular jobs, they’ve found themselves at the nexus of this crisis. The Cut spoke with five of them about sick children, 24/7 contact tracing, and the COVID conspiracy theorists that “are sacrificing our kids.”

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity, and names have been changed.

“We had a school board meeting pretty recently and the parents called us child abusers for having our kids wear masks.” — Jennifer, district nurse, New Mexico

The number-one thing we’ve had lately is that parents are just sending kids to school sick. They know that they’re sick, and they will downright lie. They will tell the kid to lie. We had one parent where if you mentioned COVID they just cut you off and say, I’m not going to talk about that. I don’t believe in that. And they just hang up. Or they’ll refuse to let the child come home, and we have to call the police to escort them home, which is such a waste of resources.

We have about 9,000 students in our district, and since school started we’ve had five schools shut down. We average two staff cases per day and up to 15 student cases a day. We are 100 percent in-person learning with masks required indoors at all times except for during eating and drinking.

I am in a part of the state that is very Republican, and here the people who are conservative, anti-vaxx, and anti-mask are so much louder than everyone else. We had a school board meeting pretty recently and the parents called us child abusers for having our kids wear masks. There is a very large and prominent church in town that is trying to start petitions in our community to get us to not do masking.

A lot of parents are saying they’re advocating for the children. There’s a Facebook group called “Students Voices Matter,” but it’s all angry parents with misinformation, saying that we’re vaccinating kids without consent, we’re testing without consent. I feel sometimes we are doing this job working so hard for a community that is not willing to help us back. And a lot of those kids are embarrassed their parents are out there raising a huge deal. They just want to be at school, so they do what they need to do.

The atmosphere is really awful. The teachers try really hard to stay positive, but a lot of them are scared. We’ve had some very, very sick staff members in the hospital. We’ve had some very sick nurses in the hospital too. They have all been unvaccinated with the exception of a couple who had pretty significant underlying health conditions. I try to tell them everything’s going to be fine, and then I go home, and cry it out, because I have been running on fumes for about a year.

This has put a lot of strain on me mentally and physically. I have gained about 30 pounds and started therapy due to anxiety and depression. Contact tracing is 100 percent on me and the nursing team. Just this last week I put in 40 hours of overtime. I’ll have staff members calling me at six o’clock in the morning telling me their symptoms. It is literally around the clock, all days, holidays.

We don’t want to go back to them not being in school. That was terrifying for us. We weren’t very successful with online learning — a huge percentage of our kids failed. Even our kids who were succeeding before failed online learning. We have a large population of kids who are in low socioeconomic situations, with parents that have drug issues, and they didn’t have connections for a long time. We don’t want to go back there. There’s so much at stake.

“What COVID has done is give school nurses a second job.” — Jane, elementary school nurse, Washington State

All 500 kids came back and it’s madness. I’m not sleeping. I don’t get lunch breaks. I don’t eat all day. I’m exhausted. What COVID has done is give school nurses a second job. You can’t just say, “Oh, by the way, here’s another full-time job added to your job.” What? School nurses everywhere are burning out like crazy.

I spend every day contact tracing and implementing COVID protocols. I get phone calls all day long — “I’ve been exposed, my kid was exposed, this student was exposed.” With all the calls and emails and forms and legwork, each case takes a couple hours, and so it’s impossible to get your regular work done. I’m trying to take care of diabetics and I’m trying to distribute medication, but you can’t do it, because the health room is so busy. I chart — document student symptoms, vitals, and so on — for free on weekends. I don’t get paid for it at all. I’m just getting my work done so I can have some peace of mind. Otherwise I come in Monday morning and I’m so behind and it just gets worse and worse and worse.

Not to mention, the school nurses here are paid terribly. When school started they told me they cut my hours because they couldn’t afford to pay me a full day, so my paid hours went down from seven and a half to six and a half and I’m working for nearly nine. So I come in early and don’t get paid. I stay late, I don’t get paid. I need more help, but they don’t have the budget to hire someone. We are on our own. That’s the sad truth of it.

I’ve got angry parents because I haven’t called them back, I’ve got parents screaming at me about the guidelines, about the timelines for quarantine. You just get browbeaten, you just get sick of it.

I resigned after the first week. I don’t know what I’ll do next. For now, I’m taking a break.

“Parents ignore symptoms and don’t get their kid tested because they don’t want to know.” — Alice, K-12 school nurse, Ohio

I’ve lost track of how many positive cases we’ve had. Yesterday there were eight. There’s no protocol. No one in the building wears a mask. There’s no more social distancing.

Parents ignore symptoms and don’t get their kid tested because they don’t want to know. If they know they have to do something about it. They’ll load sick kids up with medicine and send them to school. Parents can’t afford to take off work. They don’t have any day care. They can’t help the kids. They’re angry; last year, when I called a parent to place their child in quarantine they threatened me with a lawsuit. They said “you’re ruining my son’s life; I’ve spoken to my attorney and am filing a personal lawsuit against you.”

There’s no option to go remote like before, so if kids have symptoms and are home on quarantine, they’re on their own for ten days. There’s no real teaching going on.

Maybe 65 percent of our staff did get vaccinated, but the ones that don’t want to get vaccinated are adamant — “I’m not doing that. I don’t know what’s in that vaccine.” I mean, they talked about surveillance trackers being in it. Seven staff members so far this year have had COVID.

One of my nurse friends asked me last week: “What happens if I just walk away? What if I just say I’m quitting? Can they do anything to me?” I really don’t even know the answer to that. Schools are desperate. They can’t get teacher subs. They can’t get secretary subs. They can’t get cafeteria subs. They definitely can’t get nurse subs. A nurse at a nearby school, her mom died of COVID. A few days later, her dad died of COVID too. But they didn’t have a sub for her. She took two days off and went right back to work.

“The kids don’t mind wearing masks, but parents are very outspoken on social media about how COVID is a lie.” — Lisa, high-school nurse, Indiana

We’re a very rural district, so access to vaccines is not good.  But when the state offered to do mobile vaccination clinics our school board said no, because it would look like they’re promoting it. In schools, masks are encouraged but not enforced; our community is very vocally against it. From what I can see the kids don’t mind wearing masks if they’re asked to, but parents are very outspoken on social media about how COVID is a lie, and the state manipulates everything. It’s all fear mongering.

We made it through two weeks and school shut down. We have approximately 565 students. In the first two weeks we had about 36 positive cases. We had one student who was hospitalized. She got to come home but she’s going to be on oxygen for at least another month.

I’m still trying to catch up on all of the things that I haven’t been able to do because I’ve been doing COVID stuff. I’m doing overtime, and working on the weekends. It’s been stressful, very stressful. Before school started, I couldn’t even sleep at night. I started grinding my teeth. I get scared about getting sick. Last year I had an isolation room for sick kids. This summer they decided we didn’t need that anymore.

We went virtual this week because of how many cases we had. The plan is to return on Monday. I don’t know if anybody actually thinks that that’s going to change anything. It’s just going to happen again.

“I don’t feel like I really have the option to quit.” —Alex, elementary-school nurse, Washington State

I think the teachers right now are just — I don’t want to say paranoid, but they’re being very cautious of any kid with any sort of symptom. I had one kid that the teacher called down because she was coughing. I went in to assess her, but it ended up just being more of a throat-clearing thing. But sometimes we’re not sure because the kids are too young to describe their symptoms, and so they go to the isolation room — it’s just kind of a sad room where they sit until someone adult gets there to pick them up.

It doesn’t feel good to be back right now with the numbers the way they are. It was springtime last year when they surveyed us about going back to school. At the time, things were looking up, vaccinations were happening, our numbers were pretty low. If they were to resurvey everybody right now, I feel like a lot more people would probably want their kids to be fully online.

Between my three kids and myself, we’re at four different schools in the district, and that makes me extremely nervous. I feel like it’s just a matter of time before one of us ends up having to quarantine or actually gets COVID. My older two are vaccinated, but my youngest is too young.

We need the money from me working, so I don’t feel like I really have the option to quit. I wouldn’t have been able to work from home. It would have either been me resigning my position or being back in the building. There was no option to do anything else.

School Nurses on What’s Really Happening in Classrooms