But as the school board in Paulding County finalized its reopening plan this summer, it seemed obvious to me that our leadership still wasn’t taking the pandemic seriously. When I read the instructions for faculty and staff in mid-July, I knew I couldn’t carry them out and sleep well at night. They make no sense — and won’t keep people safe. I quit.
Of course, I was afraid of catching the coronavirus on the job. But my bigger fear was that I’d unknowingly spread it to students and their families, or to my colleagues. I refuse to be complicit in endangering the health or the life of a child. I refuse to act as a prop, making people feel secure when, in reality, we’re putting their health at risk. As a nurse, I developed trust with families, with children. Going back to work, as if everything were fine, would betray that trust.
The district makes no provision to check temperatures at the school’s entrance, and mask-wearing is optional. From personal experience — not just as a nurse but also as a single mother — I know that when a child feels under the weather, it’s tempting to give them a fever-reducer and send them to school anyway, hoping for the best. That instinct will be catastrophic in a community where many people have been vocally skeptical about the severity or even the existence of the pandemic; they’re impatient with what they see as overcautious restrictions. Our county’s case count had been rising throughout June and July, as these plans were being drafted. It seems inevitable that someone will come to school carrying the virus and we’ll have an outbreak.
In the past, our schools have found it challenging to contain outbreaks of lice, scabies or fifth disease, and the coronavirus is much more serious. It’s also more difficult to detect than an itchy scalp or a skin rash: Its symptoms can easily be mistaken for those of many common childhood illnesses or allergies. But even if every family swore to be vigilant, young children often don’t speak up about not feeling well; some with special needs are nonspeaking. If and when a child complains, they don’t always know how to describe their symptoms: The 7-year-old sitting in my office can’t necessarily communicate clearly about the severity of her injury or illness.
Our schools do have a plan if a teacher spots a potential covid-19 case in their classroom. We nurses would split our clinics into a “well” side and a “sick” side. The student would be sent to the “sick” side, and, if their symptoms were confirmed and a fever detected, they would be isolated in a separate room until their parent could pick them up. Though my clinic space is fairly large — others in the district are closet-size — this isn’t workable. The policy appears to be modeled on the way pediatricians divide their practices, assigning medical staff to “well” and “sick” rotations to avoid cross-contamination. But at my school, serving over 1,300 students and staff members, there’s only me. I’d be passing back and forth among “sick” and “well” and “isolation” constantly, and I wouldn’t have time for following elaborate hygiene routines or putting on and removing protective equipment. (That is, if we even have the budget for gowns, gloves and masks; the district said it would provide us each with only a plastic face shield.)
On a typical day before the pandemic, I might be wrapping up a possible wrist fracture and applying ice when a teacher comes running in with a student who’s bleeding and needs a compress immediately. There’s no way I could safely tend to these kinds of small emergencies and to possible coronavirus cases in what’s essentially a shared space — yet my colleagues and I were expected to be the school’s first line of defense should someone fall noticeably ill with a highly transmissible virus.
The district also decided that the nursing staff would act as ad hoc contact tracers. We keep flu logs every year, and for the upcoming school year, they told us to note everyone with confirmed cases of covid-19, what spaces they were in and whom they were with. Our supervisors would then send out the appropriate notifications. Paperwork comes with the job, and I was perfectly willing to do any work that would actually help, but this made no sense as a strategy for containing a coronavirus outbreak. Adults have a hard enough time remembering the details of the past 14 days; try interrogating a kid about all the places they’ve been and people they’ve seen. I didn’t see how we could possibly keep records accurate enough to help prevent the spread of the virus. And in a school as large as ours, people are constantly mingling and circulating. It wouldn’t be feasible to aim at targeted quarantines over a wholesale school shutdown.
These new routines don’t seem to be designed to stop viral spread and promote public health. They seem like products of magical thinking. Now that the county’s schools have been open for a couple of weeks, it’s become even more obvious that the district is more concerned about the appearance of safety than with actual safety. Two high-schoolers posted photos and videos of their crowded hallways online, and were initially suspended; then, after nine people later tested positive for the virus, the school decided to shut down its building for a week, then switch to a hybrid model of learning. An hour away, in Cherokee County, schools had to close within days of reopening after a second-grader tested positive. The same story has been playing out in Indiana, Mississippi and Louisiana.
Schools and families want badly to resume normal, stable routines. But without the virus under control, and lacking any support from the government so people can stay home, we’re left to muddle through the chaos.
As told to Post editor Sophia Nguyen.