Despite the presence of a still very new pandemic, school nurses across the Garden State had some breathing room during the 2020-2021 academic year — not every school was fully back in the classroom, and even if districts opted for completely live learning, families had the option to keep their kids home to learn remotely.

But that breathing room is nonexistent this school year for nurses, with every student required to be back at school five days per week. Now, cases, concerns and paperwork related to COVID-19 are overwhelming a nurse's day that's already plenty busy due to everyday accidents and illnesses, physicals and screenings, and children with chronic medical conditions that need to be managed.

"They're mentally wiped out at this point, and it's only October," said Donna Pleus, president of the New Jersey State School Nurses Association.

The workload has quadrupled for some school nurses, and it's at least doubled for all of them, Pleus said. If a student happens to be showing symptoms at school, there are referrals to be made, conversations to be had with parents, and a process put in place to allow for a child's return. Select schools offer testing on site; others may contract with a local establishment that can offer tests in a timely manner.

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"If, gosh forbid, we have a child who's positive, that starts a whole other cycle," Pleus said. "Who lives at the home? Who have they been in contact with at school? Were they masked at all times? Did they play sports outside the building?"

Pleus noted nurses also need to keep lists of students who are not allowed in the building until they're cleared to return. In addition, as of Oct. 26, schools are required to submit weekly COVID reports to the state.

In its latest update, the New Jersey Department of Health recorded 126 school outbreaks (3 or more cases transmitted in school) since the start of the year, resulting in 658 positive cases among students and staff. On Oct. 19, 30 new outbreaks were reported from a week prior.

"Some school districts responded by getting extra help in the nurse's office," Pleus said.

Pleus said the association is urging nurses to ask their school or district for assistance, and asking parents to be patient with nurses should they get a call about a potential or positive case.

"They're doing their best to keep everyone healthy and safe under very trying circumstances," Pleus said.

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