Congratulations to Rhode Island school nurse Denise Sullivan, R.N. who penned this excellent Op-Ed to share her perspective from ground zero of COVID in her school community. She laid out a well-founded rationale for why her school district had no choice but to turn to remote learning because of choices being made outside of the school day that impacts the safety of students and staff.
Op/Ed: 8 Days of Distance Learning Is Right Choice
After listening to the School Committee meeting on Thursday, Dec. 10, and reading the many comments shared on social media since, I find it necessary to share my knowledge of the current situation within and among all East Greenwich schools. I am a resident of East Greenwich and have had four children graduate from the school system. Currently, I am the school nurse-teacher at Meadowbrook Farms and also serve as a member of the 2020-21 East Greenwich Schools Reopening Committee. I remain intricately involved in the day-to-day operations of our schools and the many safety requirements and protocols required to keep schools open and children and staff safe. In my role as school nurse at Meadowbrook, and formerly as an ICU (and NICU) nurse at Kent Hospital, I have been trained to assess safety in all situations as well as anticipate issues that may be forthcoming.
Like many surrounding communities, East Greenwich schools are experiencing severe staffing issues related to many health and safety guidelines instituted to keep children and staff in schools safe during this Covid-19 pandemic. Supt. Meyer’s recommendation for eight days of distance learning was predicated on these unsafe conditions. I am confident that, if East Greenwich is not responsive to the current circumstances, our schools will see an increase in the spread of COVID-19 among children and staff in our buildings and that schools will be forced to return to distance learning for much longer than eight days.
Beginning the first week in November, schools began seeing a shift in staffing. Increasingly, teachers and staff have been unable to work in the school buildings as they await Covid-19 test results, are quarantining due to an exposure or are living with a person who has tested positive for the virus. To illustrate the impact of this, one day last week Meadowbrook began the day with one teacher teaching remotely and two paraprofessionals out (one awaiting testing results and one recovering from the virus) and ended with an additional teacher and three paraprofessionals being sent home after three of them were exposed to a student who then tested positive and one meeting the positive case criteria for Covid-19. Altogether, 7 out of 42, or 17% of the staff, were unable to work at Meadowbrook due to Covid-19 on this particular day. This is tremendously troublesome because this year, more than any other, every staff member is needed in school in order to maintain the health and safety protocols set forth by the Rhode Island Department of Health and federal Centers for Disease Control. Classes are split up for lunch in order to maintain a safe 6 feet of distance while eating (unmasked). This requires adult supervision in two different locations. Classes are separated by large distances when outside at recess, necessitating no less than one adult for every classroom outside. For our small school 7 absent staff members leaves a lot of holes to fill, especially as it has become a regular occurrence.
As the school nurse, I am responsible for students with acute and chronic illnesses, injuries that occur at school, state immunization monitoring and reporting, screenings, and am now a Covid-19 contact tracer. In recent weeks I have also been needed to cover student lunches, recess, answer phones, and substitute in classes – all in the name of keeping our school open. Recently, I was alone covering student lunches in the cafeteria and was needed to triage a student with an asthma attack. There was nobody immediately available to cover the students in the cafeteria so that I could tend to the student’s medical needs. Thankfully, I was able to get our custodian to cover in the cafeteria so I could see to this student. While I pride myself on being a team player, being pulled in so many directions has become problematic. The school principal has often been required to abandon his administrative responsibilities in order to ensure our school environment is safe for children. For example, he’s had to leave important meetings to wash the cafeteria floor so kids have a clean, sanitized place to sit when they eat their lunch whenever the custodian is out sick or decontaminating isolation rooms. Additionally, the principal has had to substitute in many classrooms, cover lunch and recess, and even the nurse’s office for minor situations while I’ve been filling holes elsewhere in the school. Additionally, our school secretary has been forced to abandon her regular duties in order to cover classes, lunch, recess, and more. The above scenario is just a small example of why a metric isn’t possible. Staffing due to the current COVID-19 protocols creates a fluid situation that not only changes each day but can change each hour. These are the kinds of circumstances that are occurring every day at every school and caused our superintendent to recommend students learn from home for a few days.
The schools in East Greenwich have done an excellent job maintaining the health and safety guidelines that were put in place to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 in our buildings. Fortunately, spread is not happening in schools because of the hard work of many individuals and families. However, the protocols we have put into place are now being threatened not only by the increasing positivity rate in our state and community, but also because of the particularly reckless actions of some in our town. There are members of our community who are not following the guidelines set forth by the state and the CDC and this directly impacts schools. Social gatherings, sporting events, family dinners, college visits, travel, knowingly sending sick kids to school, not wearing masks or adhering to social distancing guidelines all contribute to cases skyrocketing in Rhode Island. The governor has implored Rhode Islanders to stay home and celebrate only with household members, but the reality is many members of our community continue to ignore her requests, therefore increasing the number of cases and subsequently school staff absences.
Here are a few of the things each of us can do to ensure schools remain open for business:
- Postpone vacations
- Adhere to the quarantine requirements when leaving the country or visiting states with >5% positivity rate (upon return students must quarantine 14 days)
- Discourage students from returning to school without quarantining (we know some parents have encouraged children not to tell anyone of their travel or illness)
- Stop attending out-of-state sporting events not currently sanctioned in Rhode Island
- Keep children home who have any symptoms of the virus (runny noses and all)
- Stop hosting and allowing your family members to attend social gatherings,
- Shop online
- Avoid crowds
- Order takeout
- Wear masks
- Continue social distancing
School nurses and administrators are aware that many exceptionable activities are regularly occurring in our community and we are not confident some will adhere to safety guidelines over winter break, putting schools at risk for spread and adding to the already increased absences of staff members. Each one of us bears the responsibility of schools remaining open for in-person learning.
I am proud of the leadership within the East Greenwich schools and am very grateful to have Supt. Meyer lead us through this very challenging and unprecedented time. She has done an exceptional job! Meadowbrook Farms School has a remarkable principal, Neil Marcaccio, who is not afraid to roll up his sleeves and do whatever he needs for his students, faculty, and staff. He and all school administrators have worked tirelessly since March 13th on behalf of the children and families in this town and we are very fortunate to have administrators and staff who are willing to do what it takes to make in-person school possible during this pandemic. The dedication to our children and community have resulted in very low transmission of the virus in schools. If we value schools remaining open, it is our personal responsibility to follow the guidelines and enable schools to safely reopen after winter break. Please follow the governor’s orders, help us keep the case count low, and decrease the number of staff required to quarantine going into the later weeks of January and February. We, too, value learning in school over distance learning.
Thank you for your attention to this important matter.
Denise Sullivan, R.N., is the school nurse-teacher at Meadowbrook Farms School in East Greenwich, R.I.