SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — In Watertown, Sioux Falls and across the South Dakota’s school nurses are working hard to keep students in school but they are tired, said Sheila Freed, the president of the South Dakota School Nurses Association.

“We were hoping that we would not have COVID-19 be so much of our story this year,” Freed said.

“School nurses are not used to being in the limelight or dealing with conflict or being put in a spot of contention,” Freed said of some of what school nurses experienced last year and could experience this year.

It’s the fall of 2021 and COVID-19 is still very much part of every day life including school life.

Like educators and the general public, there is an exhaustion level in nurses because “we’d rather things be back to normal and things still aren’t…” Freed said.

Parents can continue to help school nurses this year, said Freed and Patti Anderson, the nurse at Roosevelt High School in Sioux Falls.

“…I think people try to do what’s best for their kids,” Freed said.

For parents and the public, “I would encourage them to listen to their health care provider,” Freed said. “If their health care provider encourages them to get vaccinated, do so. If their health care provider encourages their children under 12 to get a mask, do that.”

“Parents are such a big piece of our team,” Anderson said.

Parents need to continue screening their children for symptoms and encouraging good hand washing and other health practices such as enough sleep and eating healthy, Anderson said.

Lead school nurse in the Watertown district, Kayla Mohling said parents should continue to make sure kids get to bed on time and practice good hygiene such as brushing their teeth and washing hands.

Yet, “kids can still get sick,” Mohling said.

There are personal decisions involved with COVID-19, Anderson said, and parents need to talk with their health care providers.

A sign at Huron High School, which recently implemented a mask mandate.

School districts have varied policies related to COVID-19 in the state. Freed said in South Dakota there seems to be less of the ‘we must wear masks’ or ‘we can’t wear masks’ mentalities as seen in some states

South Dakota seems to have more of a baseline of personal responsibility, Freed said.

Freed is also the eCARE eSchool Health Director for Avera eCARE, which provides school nurses in districts in several states.

“That’s not true for all the states we serve,” Freed said of the baseline of personal responsibility.

“For our schools in Minnesota and even Nebraska, wearing masks is a little easier sell than in the Dakotas,” Freed said.

What are school nurses experiencing?

COVID numbers gathered by the South Dakota Department of Health show more COVID-19 cases in K-12 schools than last year.

As of Aug. 28, the most recent number posted by the DOH as of Sept. 8, there were 216 new COVID-19 cases in students for the week of Aug. 22-28. There were 433 total cases in students and staff.

The Centers for Disease Control and local health experts have said the Delta COVID-19 variant is more easily transmitted than prior strains and it is being contracted by more individuals younger than 60, including school students, than with prior strains.

Seventy-hundred-thirty-four school districts did not have any cases while 165 did.

But as DOH numbers show, the number of COVID-19 cases varies by school.

“I haven’t seen a real impact yet to be honest with you,” Anderson said of COVID-19.

So far, the Sioux Falls campus seems more like a normal school year, Anderson said.

That’s also true in Watertown, Mohling said.

Anderson said she’s not seeing a lot of COVID-19 symptoms in students.

“We follow the screening guidelines,” she said.

Parents are also asked to follow the screening guidelines at home before a student comes to school, Anderson said.

Watertown staff is also following protocols that were put in place last year, which includes having a child stay home or go home if they have a fever of 100.4 or higher, Mohling said.

There are cases in which a student must stay home or leave school.

“For the most part, parents understand. That’s not to say it is not a hardship sometimes,” Freed said

Parents may not have the resources for a Plan B if their child needs to stay home from school, Freed said. If a parent responds negatively to a nurse who tells them a child must stay home from school, it’s often because of a lack of resources or stretched resources, Freed said.

Just as with the prior school year, nurses may be dealing with COVID-19 symptoms or screenings while also handling regular-day duties.

For Anderson, there has been more typical nurse visits of extra-curricular injuries or seasonal colds or allergies.

There are times when Anderson will ask additional questions of the student or the parent to make sure “nothing gets missed.”

In her role with eCARE school nurses, Freed said, she knows nurses may provide information on where a child can get tested. Some school nurses are doing COVID-19 testing at the school and developing close contact lists.

Mohling said the safety measures stressed last year should be habits this year. She works in the districts four elementary schools.

If asked, she will go into a classroom to give students a refresher course on washing hands and covering coughs, Mohling said.

“Some schools are offering vaccination clinics,” Freed said. “They are doing that on top of their regular jobs.”

Keeping students in school

Last year and this year, school nurses and educators all worked hard to keep kids in school in South Dakota, Freed said.

It took a cooperative effort to help kids stay in school for in-classroom learning last year, Anderson said.

It will take a similar effort this year, Anderson said.

Last year’s effort took a toll on school nurses, Freed said.

The school nurse association conference this summer was a chance to boost morale, share stories and rejoice in a successful year where students were able to stay in the classroom, Freed said.

Mohling said although the staff must be aware of COVID-19 this year, there is more of a sense “of getting back to normal” this year.