Anchorage school nurses are busier than ever as the coronavirus transforms their jobs

Nurse Therese Brennan on the phone with a parent in her office at Rogers Park Elementary School on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

It was shortly after 9:30 a.m. at Rogers Park Elementary School last week and nurse Therese Brennan was on the phone with a parent, telling her she couldn’t accept a result from an at-home COVID-19 test.

“He does need to get the PCR test or molecular one,” she explained. “They work better.”

Brennan — or Nurse T as her students call her — is getting a lot of questions from families about the coronavirus, including about testing, symptoms, possible exposure and when to quarantine.

It’s her 13th year as a school nurse, and she said she’s busier than ever. 

The coronavirus has transformed her job at the Anchorage School District. As the city wades through its worst coronavirus surge yet, driven by the super contagious delta variant, Brennan has become a go-to source of information for her school’s families. She’s checking emails from them all the time — before she goes to bed, first thing in the morning, on the weekends.

“People think of these questions, you know, in the middle of the night,” she said. “So I’m working more. It is a lot more busy. But there just needs to be a lot of communication.”

Her sentence was punctuated by a dinging noise on her laptop.

Another email.

A School Nurse examining the ear of a 4th grade student
Therese Brennan checks 4th grader Natasha Heaths ear at Rogers Park Elementary School. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

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School nurses like Brennan across the district are in the middle of a complicated balancing act — trying to manage COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, plus all their other typical tasks, like giving out medication, monitoring diabetic students and testing students’ hearing.

“The school nurses are working extremely hard,” said Jen Patronas, the district’s senior director of Healthcare Services. “They are working tirelessly.”

By Thursday evening, about a month into the school year, the district had tallied roughly 1,750 cases — or about 3.5% of all staff and students. And about 1% had an active COVID-19 infection.

Patronas said given the spread of coronavirus in the community, those totals aren’t surprising. 

“We actually expected the numbers to be a little bit higher,” she said. “But I think that students being in school, where we’re structured, we have mitigation measures, we’re masking universally, except for when we’re eating and drinking, is actually helpful, because it’s a safe place for students to be.”

RELATED: Alaska reports record 1,330 new COVID cases and 7 deaths

Districtwide, since the school year started, the virus has prompted five classrooms to temporarily transition to online learning. No entire school has had to stop in-person learning, according to a district spokeswoman. 

Patronas said nurses play a big role in keeping the virus from spreading through schools.

They help with COVID-19 testing, plus responding to infections, she said. If a student tests positive, the nurse helps track down their close contacts, like who they were sitting next to at lunch.

Even though students considered close contacts don’t have to quarantine anymore if they don’t have symptoms, they still must get notified of the possible exposure, said Patronas.

On top of that, she said, school nurses are on the lookout for sick students at school.

“Before COVID, the school nurses’ main role was to keep kids in school, or to get them back into class as quickly as possible,” she said. “And now their role has changed significantly to: If they’re sick, let’s get them home as quickly as possible.”

To track the students who have COVID-19 or who may have it, the district has a massive database that shows who has tested positive, who is quarantining, who is a close contact and who has provided proof of a negative test.

Patronas said the system is working well.

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As COVID-19 overwhelms the city’s hospitals, she said she doesn’t feel like schools are nearing any sort of breaking point. But, she said, school nurses are having to prioritize more, focusing on caring for students who are ill or injured first.

“And the other things that we typically put a lot of priority on, like making sure immunizations are up to date, making sure that the students have vision and hearing exams, we’re telling them to just put those on the backburner for right now,” she said.

Back at Rogers Park Elementary, nurse Brennan said the school has had roughly 10 COVID-19 cases in the past month. Like Patronas, she said she also thinks face masks are a big help. 

“I’m so happy with our teachers, they’re so wonderful about getting the kids to keep their masks on,” she said. “And that said, I’m really happy with the kids being so awesome about keeping their masks on.”

Between calling parents and answering emails about COVID-19 last week, Brennan also talked to a student with a stomachache, another with an earache and another with a scratchy throat who she decided to send home. Plus, she called in a trio of students to test their hearing. 

Therese Brennan conducts a hearing test for Olivia Victoriano at Rogers Park Elementary School on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

That all happened in about an hour, as she tried to fit everything in.

“Nothing has been cut out yet just, you know, maybe things take a little bit longer,” she said. “And so we need to give ourselves grace and give each other grace and just get through these things a little bit slower than we normally would.”

Even with the additional work and busy days, Brennan said the word she’d use to describe her job is “exciting.” She’s happy to be back in school with students. 

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