‘I have never been so exhausted’: How Central Valley School nurses, administrative staff are keeping up with surging cases

LIBERTY LAKE, Wash. – Hundreds of students are testing positive for COVID-19 weekly across the Inland Northwest. Schools have a lot to keep up with in contact tracing.

Out of the 952 students who attend Ridgeline High School, the Central Valley School District’s COVID dashboard shows 120 students tested positive in the last 10 days.

This surge in COVID cases is creating more stress and work for school staff.

In her 20 years of being a school nurse, Heather Graham says this year is the most tiring.

“I have never been so exhausted,” she said.

Graham says it’s like the beginning of school. As a nurse at Ridgeline, it takes time to get back into the swing of things at the start of school. She says they normally hit a stride in October; months later, she still hasn’t hit that.

“I am so, so tired, but I’m doing great. I do have a fabulous support team, and I couldn’t do it without them for sure,” she told 4 News Now.

The Central Valley School District (CVSD) has a COVID supervisor in each of its buildings. At Ridgeline, that’s Kyle LeGrant, who is also the dean of students.

“I’d say a majority of my day, especially since coming back from winter break, has been COVID-related,” he said. “I also do attendance and discipline, but the majority of my job right now is being taken up with the COVID role.”

The day after weekends is particularly more busy than the rest of the week for LeGrant and Graham. In addition to the work they have to do for their own roles, they have more to do because of COVID.

Graham usually helps students when they don’t feel well or administer medication to kids. But since COVID hit, her health room has become a testing site. She said she tested about 150 people at Ridgeline on Tuesday, the day after a three-day holiday weekend. With a surge in testing and positive results comes more people needing to go into quarantine.

That’s where LeGrant comes in; he does the contact tracing for Ridgeline.

“We’ve had a number of positive cases since we’ve come back from break. On a daily basis, I was doing anywhere from 50 to 60 phone calls home to families regarding either a COVID positive test or a close contact to a positive test. As far as emails go, it’s double that,” he said.

He has to send out emails to families about what protocols they should follow and when they could come back to school. He then also emails teachers looking for information on close contacts.

Contact tracing in schools can be difficult with the large number of students attending. It’s even more work for middle and high schools with students switching classes all day.

“Because of the sheer volume of cases we’re seeing, it’s created some additional work for all of us,” said Brian Asmus, the director of safety and security for CVSD.

In Central Valley Schools, the need to contact trace while also testing is not solely based on the shoulders of nurses. That’s not the case in other districts.

“I would be done. It’s not sustainable,” Graham said if she had to contact trace, too. “My hat goes off to those nurses who are doing that, and my heart reaches out to them as well because that’s a big burden. I’m so blessed to have the COVID supervisor and team.”

“It’s definitely a team effort. With the number of cases we’re seeing in this surge, it’s more work than just one person that can do,” Asmus added.

There’s a lot more work being done behind the scenes than what families normally see or hear.

Asmus said they have to go through a “double-checking” system with the health district in making sure no COVID-positive student slips through the cracks.

Each morning, Asmus receives a report from the Spokane Regional Health District of positive cases that could potentially be associated with the CVSD service area. He looks at that information to see if any of those are students in CVSD schools and then passes along that information to the individual buildings. Most of the time, schools already have that information. This does create more work for schools, but they all want to be sure.

“It does sometimes feel like it’s a health clinic in here,” LeGrant said of all the work they have to do with COVID.

While the pandemic and this surge are bringing on extra work school staff and families who have to deal with the aftermath, the district says it’s doing the best it can to keep up.

“I so appreciate the families that are just kind and express their appreciation for what we’re doing. We’re doing the best we can and trying to keep up with our constantly changing guidelines,” Graham said. “I just want parents to understand that I feel their frustration and [I’m] trying my best to keep kids in school.”

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