COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — More than 100 nurses working for Columbus City Schools say they’re overwhelmed handling COVID-19.
A letter to Superintendent Talisa Dixon and the school board, signed by 115 school nurses, demands changes to protocol. Less than a month into the school year, the scathing letter says the virus is running “rampant” through school buildings and the current situation is not sustainable.
Nurses employed by Ohio’s largest public school district are quoted in the letter as saying, “Nurses are absolutely drowning and I feel like there is no lifeline,” “I am feeling stressed and overwhelmed all the time,” and “I feel as though I am on the Titanic.”
The strong words come as no surprise to Kate Curry-Da-Souza, who pulled her third-grade son from CCS the day before classes began. Curry-Da-Souza said her son, Nico, has a condition that puts him at high risk of a severe COVID-19 infection.
She told NBC4 Investigates she was concerned about full school buses and classrooms, among other things.
“I want to have my kid back at Columbus City Schools so badly, but I just — it’s about his safety at the end of the day. I need him to be alive next year for that,” she said. “These are a group of individuals who can’t get vaccinated. So, they’re just literally being sent like lambs to the slaughter. I just — I can’t stomach it.”
Nico is now enrolled in an online program outside of CCS.
“We have to find a way to have this done safely,” Curry Da-Souza said. “And I just don’t see that that’s being done.”
Nurses ‘burnt out’ from chasing cases
The nurses’ letter outlines specific complaints, saying contact tracing often falls only on the nurses, leaving them “burnt out” from “working late into the evening.”
It also says the district’s protocols are unclear, leaving room for misunderstanding. The nurses cited one example of a school principal telling staff in an email that “they can continue reporting to work” if they test positive for the virus, “as long as they wear a mask and social-distanced.”
The school issued a correction after two days, the nurses’ letter says.
The letter is backed by the Columbus Education Association, the union that represents most CCS employees. It asks the district for more staff to help with contact tracing, clearer messaging, and updated protocols.
CEA President John Coneglio was unavailable for an interview Friday, but sent a statement to NBC4 Investigates:
“It has been one year and six months since this pandemic began, and Columbus City Schools is still in a reactionary mode. Our 119 School Nurses are the frontline health workers for the District’s more than 46,000 students as well as our staff. We want nothing more than to keep our students in school and we are fighting as hard as we can to keep schools open. Despite things being promoted as business as usual, it is not business as usual, and the District needs to stop acting like it. If we’re going to be “All-In”, our resources, practices and protocols need to be “All-In” to match the demands of this model now. Our students, our staff and the community deserve nothing less.
The Superintendent has made a commitment to meeting next week and working to address these issues in a collaborative fashion. We look forward to coming together, in true partnership with the administration to ensure that the remainder of this school year is a success for our students, our staff and our families.”
Columbus City Schools declined a request for an interview but provided a statement:
“Our school nurses have been invaluable in helping to lead our District response to the ongoing pandemic. We appreciate their expertise and unwavering commitment to the health and safety of our students, staff, and community.
We recently had a meeting with our school nurses and principals to discuss the challenges impacting the entire health care system on a local and national level in responding to COVID-19. The meeting was an opportunity to review procedures and protocols with all principals and school nurses. While the session was not a direct result of this letter, the conversation addressed much of what the school nurses also identified.
We’ve committed additional funding to support staff who will be able to assist our nurses with contact tracing and notifications. And, in collaboration with CPH and pediatric experts at NCH, we continue to monitor and update the multi-layered protocols we have at our buildings to keep students and staff safe. This includes more access to testing for our students in schools and our families outside of school.
Subsequently, as part of our transparency, we’ve continued to provide updates using the COVID-19 Analytics and Targeted Surveillance System (CATS) Dashboard. The Dashboard is updated every Wednesday, and we update the CCS Dashboard every Thursday—it’s surveilling the data by region, building, and even zip code. Before CATS, the District posted the COVID-19 data weekly with only one data point of student and staff positive cases.
As a District, we’ve had to pivot many times during this pandemic, and we continue to provide updates as quickly as possible. We appreciate the work of our school nurses and all Columbus City Schools staff during this unprecedented time.”
CCS already has more COVID-19 cases than all last year
CCS has confirmed 523 COVID-19 cases so far this school year, according to the district’s coronavirus dashboard. 431 of them are students and 92 are staff members. Another 2,545 students and 76 staff members are currently in isolation or quarantine.
The district saw 349 cases total last year (159 students, 190 staff), but learning was remote in the fall semester and hybrid in the spring.
The case numbers that every school district, private school and other non-college institution has to report to the Ohio Department of Health every week lag behind the real-time data, but numbers as of Thursday rank CCS sixth in the state.
Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther said Friday afternoon he had not seen the letter, but said, “This is why the mask mandate and the facial coverings are so important.”
Ginther signed an executive order last Friday requiring people aged six and older to wear masks in indoor public spaces in Columbus. CCS is among the 42% of Ohio school districts requiring masks for some or all students, according to Thursday figures from the state Department of Education.
“We remain committed to working with Dr. Dixon as a partner,” the mayor added.
Ben Orner contributed to this story.