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County school nurses remain flexible during a pandemic

By Lori Overmyer

They all agree. “Our students are amazing, even the very youngest.”

Wabash County school nurses have been tasked as the gatekeepers for keeping students healthy, safe, and in school.

Working with administrators and stakeholders, each school district developed plans for re-opening. Guidance came from the Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH), Indiana Department of Education (DOE), Wabash County Health Department (WCHD) and the CDC; however, each district had to determine the best plan for its students and situations.

The best laid plans during a pandemic, though, are fluid. M.A. Hire, Manchester Community School (MCS) nurse said, “It’s like being in the Hunger Games. The CDC and ISDH are the game changers.”

Beth Whitesel, health service coordinator for Metropolitan School District (MSD) said, “We developed a re-entry plan and revamped as we along.”

“I feel like we absolutely prepared the best we know how,” Wabash City Schools (WCS) nurse Char Kelsheimer said, “But you can’t be in a pandemic. We did our due diligence.”

On the frontlines protecting the school population, the nurses make quick decisions daily. Their decisions impact education and families.

Hire feels the weight of every decision she makes. She said, “I think all the time, ‘God, I hope I’m doing this right.’”

Kelsheimer believes the foundation for all decisions is to do what is best for the health of the students and keeping them in school.

Hire is the only healthcare provider for MCS, so a lot of the responsibility for determining policies have fallen to her, but she knows she has the complete support of her administration. Even so, she said she feels the weight of every decision she makes.

Whitesel and Kelsheimer collaborated with committees in their school systems, but, as with MCS, the re-entry plans boiled down to following guidelines from the experts. Those guidelines included changing how health rooms or clinics are set up, finding separate spaces for ill children, lunch plans, library use, distancing in classrooms and gym and music classes. Taking students’ temperatures is a routine now.

Whitesel admitted she had anxiety about returning to school. “Just the unknown and the changes were concerning,” she said.

Kelsheimer’s son Kaden, 7, said, “My mom worries about COVID, people getting sick, and washing hands.”

Hearing this, Kelsheimer smiled wearily. “I do worry,” she said.

As the “lone wolf,” Hire feels the burden of knowing she can’t get sick. “Who will take care of the students?” she asked.

Although Kelsheimer has Peggy Ballschmidt on staff as a fulltime nurse, she said, “I can’t get sick. That’s why I’m obsessed with doing this right.”

At MSD, Whitesel, who is based at Southwood, does have other nurses to work with. Nikki Holmes is at Metro North, and Kelley Taylor is at Sharp Creek and Northfield.
The concerns are layered and the changes in how they work this year reflect the impact of the pandemic.

First, they check daily with Wabash County Health. Hire said, “I call in the morning for verifying testing.”

All the schools look to WCHD for local support. The department will know where there might be hotspots for COVID in the county. The contact also helps schools know if a student or family has been tested and when they can return to school.

Second, the nurses must be aware of attendance in all the school buildings and understand why students are absent. If a kid is presenting COVID symptoms, the nurses start contact protocol to alert all who have been in contact with not only the ill student but all their household members, classmates, and teammates. From there, the phone calls begin.

All three women said they are spending a lot of time on the phone with parents and caregivers. No family wants to be told its child and siblings must be sent home, but in most cases families have been understanding. Whitesel said, “The parents have been so gracious.”

Hire uses the opportunity to help connect families to free testing and even healthcare clinics. Kelsheimer added that getting rapid test results gets everyone back to school.

Finally, the women receive guidance and changes from DOE, ISDH, and CDC. If changes are recommended, it’s their responsibility to respond to the new guidelines and implement and announce the changes. That’s not always easy when working with a wide range of circumstances.

Fortunately, they all agree the students are great. They do what’s asked of them, and that’s the silver lining to this situation.
Whitesel said, “I’ve been amazed at how they’ve adapted.”

Hire said, “Kids are doing wonderful. I’m beyond impressed.”

Kelsheimer is proud of the kids, too. “They are amazing. The kids wear their masks and social distance.”

As one who looks for grace, Whitesel has found that many parents are self-screening or taking students to a provider to check for an alternate diagnosis before the thought of COVID becomes an issue. But she does have a final thought for the entire county.

“People should get a flu vaccine. This is the year to do it,” she said. “It’s about keeping as many people healthy as possible.”

As the caretakers for the county students, Hire, Whitesel, and Kelsheimer want kids to be at school, and they will do whatever it takes to keep them safe and healthy.

Posted on 2020 Sep 22