Although keeping everyone safe and healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a major emphasis at the school district, it’s not the only job of school nurses.
“Just COVID is a full-time job — trying to keep the school open. But there are still regular bumps, bruises and chronic health conditions,” school nurse Adriana Vanbianchi said last week.
Now the schools have a dedicated COVID liaison to handle testing and contact tracing and oversee any quarantines. Annelisa Tornberg, who started last week, also communicates with families about potential exposures and ensures they have groceries and other necessities if they are quarantined. She is also the district’s liaison with medical providers and public health officials.
“We are providing as many services as possible during a trying time, when students, teachers and families are exhausted and stressed,” Tornberg said.
The school district is offering free, voluntary tests every morning for students and staff. Some days, they’ve given as many as 40 tests.
As Okanogan County saw its highest infection rate since the start of the pandemic this fall — and with the highly contagious Delta variant spreading in the community at large — schools have had more COVID cases than in the past. In addition, this year, the majority of students are at school for in-person instruction and athletics have resumed, increasing the potential for exposure, Vanbianchi said.
The increased virulence of COVID is naturally reflected at school, although their mitigation measures — including masking, ventilation, and holding lessons and activities outdoors when possible — have minimized transmission, Vanbianchi said.
The school doesn’t have an exact tally of infections this year because the recent surge has been particularly widespread and complex. Whenever staff and students are in isolation because they have COVID, it means other young people are in quarantine waiting to see if they’re infected. “That’s why community prevalence really affects our students,” Vanbianchi said.
Students and staff who’ve been vaccinated generally don’t have to quarantine, but they must continue to wear masks and monitor for symptoms. Since masks are required for classes and all other indoor school activities, if someone in a class gets sick, it’s generally not considered a close contact for classmates, Vanbianchi said.
More than 90% of staff have been vaccinated. In addition, 75 to 85% of juniors and seniors are vaccinated, but the proportion declines in younger grades, Vanbianchi said. Everyone 12 and older is eligible for a vaccine.
The Delta variant is so virulent that it’s not a surprise that vaccinated people are getting infected, but they usually just experience mild, cold-like symptoms, Vanbianchi said.
Although there have been no severe pediatric cases of COVID in the valley, children elsewhere have required hospitalization, Vanbianchi said. As children swamp pediatric ICUs and emergency rooms, Vanbianchi said she worries about access to care for the full range of diseases and accidents.
With Tornberg focusing on COVID, Vanbianchi can turn her attention to other aspects of student health. In the Methow — like everywhere across the country — immunizations for other childhood diseases have fallen behind because many well-child exams were postponed during the pandemic, she said.
Vanbianchi will also work on hearing and vision tests, first-aid training for staff, and overall safety.
Tornberg’s position is paid for by a $50,000 grant from the state Department of Health, Methow Valley School District Superintendent Tom Venable said.