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A School Nurse Who's Seen It All, But Not A Pandemic

Liam Niemeyer

 This story is a part of a series WKMS is publishing this week on school reopenings in west Kentucky amid the COVID-19 pandemic.


Tina Ryan, 55, knows the hallways of East Calloway Elementary better than most. Besides working as a school nurse here for 20 years, she was also a student herself in the 70s. 

 “I’m probably one of the older ones here as far as staff and things. Or maybe the oldest one here,” she said with a laugh. “I was happy to know I was coming to East Elementary when I got the job. Because I was an alumni here.”


A pencil sign that reads, “Nurse’s Office” hangs in the hallway next to her door, with all the classic supplies of a veteran nurse inside: tongue depressors, a blood pressure cuff, itch cream — “bug bites all the time” —and loads of bandages and band-aids. 


Kids walk through her office for vision screenings, headaches, and the kids she calls “frequent flyers,” otherwise known as students who may be visiting just to get out of class. But a new tool also sits on her desk — an infrared, touchless thermometer to check for fever. For a COVID-19 symptom. 


“Somebody's gonna test positive. But we have what we're going to do if that happens,” Ryan said behind her red and white mask. “I mean, it's just inevitable it's gonna happen.”


Calloway County Schools is one of a few school districts in the Purchase and Pennyrile regions of Kentucky to offer an in-person classroom option alongside a remote learning option, with classes starting Monday. The school district’s decision went against Governor Andy Beshear’s recommendation to delay in-person school openings until late September due to COVID-19 concerns.


This pandemic is unlike anything she’s seen during her decades in these hallways, during a visit to the school last week. Yet facing the uncertainty of a once-in-a-century public health crisis, Ryan and the school district are putting their faith in a detailed reopening plan


Teachers and staff have to self-assess symptoms before entering schools, each student’s temperature is checked and hand sanitizer given when entering schools, masks are required when social distancing can’t be maintained, the cafeteria is cleaned between lunch periods and the classrooms and restrooms are cleaned daily. In East Calloway Elementary, the cafeteria has more than 50 classroom desks spread out across the large area.


Credit Liam Niemeyer / WKMS
The East Calloway Elementary cafeteria, with desks spread out across the area.

 “That is just one of the things that was so strange to me when I walked through the cafeteria for the first time,” said Ryan. “There’s just no long cafeteria tables. That’s just what I grew up with -- big, long picnic tables.”


And when a kid appears with COVID-19 symptoms, the person teachers will often look to is the school nurse. But Ryan said tracking the coronavirus in schools can be difficult because kids have potential symptoms for a lot of reasons, especially as school enters into flu season.


“Well, it's allergy season. It's hot outside. Everybody's coughing, so we're not gonna send them home just for a cough,” Ryan said. “It’s supposed to be a new cough that just started, and there are other guidelines I’m going to be looking at.”


Yet, worries follow her. The thought of research showing kids more likely to be asymptomatic scares her. Research from hospitals in Massachusetts show that kids, even without symptoms, can have higher levels of COVID-19 than patients in the intensive care unit. 


The thought of parents and families not following COVID-19 guidelines and then sending their kids to school worries her. She worries about her students with chronic illnesses who could be more vulnerable, across the hundreds of students she cares for in multiple schools. 


“If one person ends up getting really, really sick or possibly even dying, that would be devastating. That would be so devastating,” Ryan said. “But I wouldn't think it was the school's fault, because I know what we've done, know how hard we have worked, to do things...but it would still be hard.”


If a student is sick with COVID-19 symptoms, she’ll have to call parents to have them pick up their child, which leads to more potential issues with parents sometimes hard to get in contact with. She worries students may feel afraid to say they feel sick while sitting in a classroom. But Ryan also knows some parents may not have much of a choice to send their child to school.


Sometimes, a student doesn’t have healthcare other than visits to the school nurse. Families may struggle with finding childcare options if they have to have kids learning remotely at home. Ryan’s daughter could have sent her child to kindergarten this year, but decided to wait another year due to COVID-19 uncertainty. 


Credit Liam Niemeyer / WKMS
The nurse's office in East Calloway Elementary.

 Beshear last week warned schools in counties considered to be COVID-19 “hotspots” against reopening in-person, counties that had test positivity rates of more than 10%, citing a recent White House report. Calloway County was among those “hotspot” counties. The test positivity rate for tests conducted at Murray-Calloway County Hospital was 7.51% as of August 20.


Even with that anxiety and warnings from the state, Ryan is optimistic the district's plan will work. And she believes students should have the option to come back to school for several reasons, including to check in on students the district hasn’t seen since the pandemic took hold in March.


“I just feel like that kids, physically, mentally, socially, they need to be back in school. It's time to be back,” Ryan said. “They want to be back. And again, if they don't, if the parents choose not to, that's their option.”


A district spokesperson on August 21 said the district expected about 60% of their more than 2,500 students coming back in person. Ryan in a follow-up call Tuesday said this first week has gone well so far, even with having more kids than she expected.


Yet the virus is still around. There’ve been four COVID-19 cases so far associated with the district going into the school year, but the district in a report Tuesday said no exposure has happened at school so far. Regardless of what happens, Ryan said she's always happy to see kids back.



"Liam Niemeyer is a reporter for the Ohio Valley Resource covering agriculture and infrastructure in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia and also serves Assistant News Director at WKMS. He has reported for public radio stations across the country from Appalachia to Alaska, most recently as a reporter for WOUB Public Media in Athens, Ohio. He is a recent alumnus of Ohio University and enjoys playing tenor saxophone in various jazz groups."
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