Maureen Grimes used to start each day preparing for a flood of minor injuries.

“We’d walk in the door in the morning, and a typical morning would be to go get our cooler and walk to the cafeteria big ice machine, and fill it to the brim with ice,” she said. “Now we fill it halfway.”

Maureen’s one of two nurses at Pell Elementary School in Newport. These days, parents are keeping kids with a runny nose home from school. Students know better than to fake a stomach ache to get out of taking a test. And there’s less roughhousing happening on the playground. 

“Maureen and I have gone from seeing probably 60 to 80 kids a day to maybe three or four,” her colleague, Carolyn Martin, said on a Zoom call. 

“It’s a dramatic change. We are equally as busy now, but more of it is data entry, spreadsheets, calling, doing kind of [health department] stuff.”

From morning ‘til night -- and through the weekends -- their days are dominated by a single concern: preventing the spread of COVID-19 within the school buildings. 

“Constant COVID-brain, I call it,” said Sarah Cloutier, the nurse at Newport’s Rogers High School. 

“It's always on our minds. And if it's not on our mind, someone will ask us a question about it. You're the COVID expert now for everyone. Your neighbors, your family, your co-workers, the kids at school, just everyone. And you can't get away from it.”

***

A big part of what keeps the nurses busy is tracking down potential coronavirus exposures. 

When administrators learn that a student tested positive for COVID-19, either from the health department or from the family, they start working to figure out who that student spent time with.  

“The nurse then goes, I'll say, into action,” said Newport Superintendent Colleen Burns Jermain. 

“First she looks at when the child is determined positive. She goes back 48 hours to see when they were contagious,” she explained. “Then we look at the child's schedule. What classes did they attend? So then we take up the rosters of the classes they were in, and the teachers they were with. And then there's a protocol of distance and the whole nine yards.”

According to the nurses, they typically spend three to four hours on each case, working with the principals to track down bus charts, cafeteria seating maps, sports schedules, and more.  

And they contact any teachers and families of students who may have been exposed.

In many cases, the nurses said, parents call the school as soon as they get a positive COVID-19 test result. And during the surge in cases last fall, the state health department racked up a backlog of cases in need of contact tracing. 

“We were finding out [about cases] probably hours to days before the Department of Health,” Maureen said, “so we had to act on it.”

Carolyn said she put herself in quarantine when her son tested positive, and didn’t get a call from the health department until 12 days later. 

“We were kind of forced to jump in because there was such a delay,” she added.

Burns Jermain said a single case can put a hundred people into quarantine.

“See, it’s not the positive cases,” she said. “It's the impact of that, and how it reaches so many. Just one case.”

Staffing shortages caused by COVID-19 exposures have forced administrators to close whole buildings, shifting hundreds of students to distance learning. 

In addition to contact tracing, Newport’s school nurses are now also running coronavirus testing clinics.

“They're really superheroes,” said Burns Jermain. “I have been on the phone almost every weekend with my school nurses. They are 24/7.”

***

“It’s just so much responsibility,” said Lisa Buterbaugh, the nurse at Thompson Middle School. “You know, when you think of one positive case, how many people it affects? And then, are they going to listen to you?”

Lisa said some families want to hear directly from the health department. Others hang on her every word. But the ones she worries about most are the families who don’t pick up. 

“I had one today—I got a call about a girl. And the contact number for the parent is not correct. The work number, she no longer works there. The email, I emailed the parent like three weeks ago about an issue. She still hasn't emailed me back. How do I contact this family?”

Lisa and her colleagues know that it’s difficult for families to hear that their child needs to stay home. They may need to call out from work, potentially losing out on pay, or scramble to find childcare. Maureen doesn’t take that lightly.

“I'm the one dropping this bomb on them.”

She said she often feels like she owes them a solution. 

“The dreaded phone call used to be head lice: 'Your child has head lice, come and get them.' And now it's: 'Your child's been exposed to COVID, so they have to stay home.' Yeah, it's hard for us.”

Rhode Island teachers are now getting vaccinated, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are loosening social distancing rules for schools. But even within the last few weeks, over a hundred Newport students and teachers were put in quarantine. 

Maureen said she hopes her job will return to normal soon. She just doesn’t know when that will be possible. 


Reporter Sofia Rudin can be reached at srudin@thepublicsradio.org or 401-302-1057.