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BCPS Nurses Tell Union They Are Swamped By COVID

Pamela Kernan, the school nurse at Hereford Middle School. Credit: BCPS
Pamela Kernan, the school nurse at Hereford Middle School. Credit: BCPS

It can take a lot to make a nurse cry.

Nurses who work in the Baltimore County Public Schools say they are overwhelmed by the demands COVID-19 is putting on them now that most students are back in the classroom. They are worried the heavy workload is putting students at risk.

School nurses recently met with the leaders of TABCO, the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, the union that represents them.

Lisa Vanderwal, the nurse at West Towson Elementary School said, “It was brutal to hear what some people are going through. There are a lot of nurses that have had it. They just feel like the mental stress is just not worth it.”

Cindy Sexton, the president of TABCO, said the nurses who met with the union said they have an impossible workload.

“Nurses are crying,” Sexton said. “They’re looking for new employment. They just cannot continue the way they have.”

According to the Baltimore County Public Schools, three nurses have resigned.

Leslie Perry, nurse at Hereford High School, says her principal calls her the face of COVID at the school.

“Not necessarily the face I wanted to have, but it seems to be the one I have right now.”

The usual stuff like headaches, bumps, bruises and tracking immunization records keeps school nurses busy enough. Now they have COVID to deal with, which Perry said includes tracking down students who come in close contact with someone who tests positive.

“If they were on the bus and they weren’t wearing their masks. How close are they sitting to other people? How close are they sitting in the cafeteria? How long were they that close together? There are so many different times that people are coming in contact with each other.”

Perry said that was more difficult at the beginning of the school year when students didn’t know each other.

“They’d say, ‘well someone wearing a red sweatshirt,’” she said. “So, we had to go back and pull out video tape and try to look where people were sitting in the cafeteria. It was crazy.”

They also have to administer COVID tests and deal with mounds of paperwork, including letters that must be written to parents whose children have come in close contact with someone who has tested positive for the disease.

Pamela Kernan is the nurse at Hereford Middle School. This is her 28th year there and she said it is the most intense of her career.

“Any given day it’s a rare time that my health suite is empty,” Kernan said.

When a student comes in complaining of something like a stomachache or a sore throat, she needs to take more time assessing it. Is this something run of the mill, or could it be COVID?

“You don’t want to miss something,” Kernan said. “You don’t want to send a kid that’s potentially COVID positive back to class.”

Vanderwal, the nurse at West Towson Elementary said, “If you’re being torn in five different directions and you don’t have time to truly focus on somebody coming in with, like abdominal pain, and you’re just so overwhelmed you’re dealing with everything else. What happens if this is something like appendix or something?”

Debbie Somerville, the head nurse for the Baltimore County Public Schools, said her school nurses are committed to excellence, but for now they have to settle for good enough.

Somerville said COVID comes in waves in neighborhoods. Some of her nurses have not had a single COVID case.

“And I have other school nurses who have two and three cases daily because their community is going through a COVID wave right now.”

Last week, there were 230 cases of people testing positive for COVID in the county schools. That is 10 fewer cases than were reported the week before. Somerville said nearly all those cases were due to transmission in the community, not the classroom. Nearly 1,200 people were in quarantine last week because they came in close contact with someone who was infected.

Somerville said they are trying to get relief for the nurses by getting other staff members in the schools to lend them a hand with contact tracing. But that’s complicated by staff shortages in schools.

“The employment shortage, the availability of employees, hits us in multiple areas in our buildings, whether it’s teachers or support staff,” Somerville said.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2