Nurses Warn Staffing Levels Could Complicate COVID Testing in Vermont Schools

School personnel are already stretched thin, say some nurses, who want support for additional testing

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School nurses are raising concerns over how staffing levels may impact Vermont's plan to expand COVID-19 testing in public schools around the state.

"It's really hard to say whether or not we can pull this off," said Kelly Landwehr, a nurse in the Addison Central School District. "Nurses are stretched thin -- everyone is stretched thin."

Landwehr was one of three nurses NECN spoke to Tuesday, serving districts in three different parts of Vermont. Each said the state's goal to ramp up in-school COVID testing, while noble, has left them with a logistical conundrum.

"The people who are responsible for both the logistics and personnel in school districts have been left out of the design of this system," said Becca McCray, a nurse working in the Burlington School District.

COVID cases in Vermont schools are making the start of the academic year challenging, so testing in schools is ramping up.

The Vermont Agency of Education said that, while roughly half the state's schools have not yet confronted a single case this year, there have been just over 650 cases total in schools here since the start of the new academic year.

So in the coming weeks, with rollout dates differing from town to town, the agency wants to see districts using three new tools: PCR tests in response to positive cases, rapid COVID tests to know if other kids can stay in class after a contact instead of quarantining at home and take-home test kits for certain situations.

The aim, Vermont Education Secretary Dan French said, is to preserve precious in-person learning time.

French additionally urged continued participation in a surveillance testing program.

The nurses NECN spoke to said they support the spirit of the expanded testing effort. However, they said many schools have struggled with staffing levels since before the pandemic. Plus, in some towns, school nurses have responsibility for multiple school buildings.

So, with nurses stretched thin, adding one more task has them asking for help managing testing and pointing out other non-clinical school employees are likely too overburdened to provide it.

"Looking at the staffing and the resources we have, we can't utilize utilize people more than they're already doing in the buildings," Landwehr said.

"Ideally, somebody else to come in and man this system at each school district level would be the most beneficial," added Soph Hall, a nurse in the Kingdom East Unified School District.

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French said he recognizes the challenge.

"A major bottleneck for implementing testing will be staffing," he acknowledged at a weekly media briefing from Gov. Phil Scott and members of his administration.

French pointed out the federal government has made relief money available to schools to help fund COVID responses.

"We have a lot of logistical issues to solve, whether it be staffing, supply, and so forth," French said. "But I can't help but think this is going to be the solution that really strikes the appropriate balance between keeping kids safe and keeping our kids in school and their education progressing, so we have to work hard to figure these things out."

NECN asked Scott if he would consider turning to the Vermont National Guard, to state employees or the medical reserve corps for staffing help for school districts. Scott responded that he likely would not call on the Guard, so as to not disrupt the members' responsibilities to their civilian jobs. He did say he would investigate the reserve corps as a possible source of support.

"Whether this sinks or swims is going to be whether the state can help with that personnel issue," McCray predicted.

Vermont school nurses will soon have quicker access to students' COVID-19 vaccination records through a database, French announced Tuesday, to help them better navigate potential public health issues in their buildings.

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