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School nurse excited for the school year, even during a pandemic

The school year is about to start, so what happens when that first child complains to the teacher of a cough or chills or any other sign of COVID-19?

It’ll be up to Wendy Wildes, RN, and roughly 40 of her school nurse colleagues with the Visiting Nurse Association of Southeastern Connecticut, to step in and figure it out.

“I’m like a detective,” said Wildes, who lives in Gales Ferry and works in New London. “If a little child comes in with a tummy ache, it could be they just don’t want to be at school. It could be they haven’t eaten. It could be they need to use the bathroom. It could be something bad happened at home and they’re just really upset. Or, it could be COVID.”

VNASC school nurses and an additional 20 VNASC school health aides who work in 27 schools throughout our region are sometimes overlooked in a school equation that includes kids, parents and educators, yet they are an increasingly vital part of the dynamic. Indeed, the yesteryear stereotype of a school nurse handing out Band-Aids contrasts sharply with the reality of today’s school nurses managing scores of children with complex medical conditions.

“We have students who require feeding tubes and catheterizations,” noted Leah Hendriks, RN, supervisor of the VNASC’s school nurse division. “We have children who are fragile diabetics, kids with seizure disorders, attention deficit disorders, autism – and then you throw COVID into the mix.”

Nurses like Wildes are under immense pressure, typically operating as the lone medical professional in an educational setting. And yet, “I love it,” Wildes said. “Why? Because I love the kids. That what makes the job worth it. I just adore them. They’re honest and their funny. They’re really funny.”

Hendriks said most members of the VNASC school nurse team thrive because of their love for children. They ride each day on the energy and diversity of school life, including the unknowing of what the next child to the nurses office may have to say.

“I don’t like to be stagnant and, in this job, you just never know what’s going to walk through the door,” Wildes said. “The next child could have a boo-boo, or, I might have to call an ambulance. The unknown is actually fun for me.”

The range of issues school nurses have to anticipate is almost unlimited. It could be a runny nose one minute and a serious playground head injury moments later. It could be a teacher reporting to the office with chest pains. Each day is like running a mini emergency room at each school.

This year, a child with a fever or a sore throat or any other signs of COVID-19 will be sent home immediately based on state health guidelines, and school nurses will help with contact tracing if a child tests positive for the coronavirus.

“Our school nurses are truly front-line public health professionals and they’re advocates for the kids, the parents and the schools,” Hendriks said. “They’re out there, and it’s kind of an exciting place to be.”

Wildes will be on duty this year at Harbor School in New London. “I’m ready,” she said. “Honestly, I don’t think I’d want this job if all I did was give out Band-Aids.”

The entire team is ready, Hendriks said. “We’re going to roll up our sleeves and do this,” she said. “It’s a challenge, particularly with the pandemic, but it’s what we do. If it’s going to happen, we might as well be here to help. We’ll help the kids and the parents and the teachers, and together we’ll get through it.”

Bill Hanrahan, a former reporter for The Day, works in public relations at L+M.



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