• Thu. Nov 26th, 2020

School Nurses, in Short Supply and on the Front Lines

This is the Coronavirus Schools Briefing, a guide to the seismic changes in U.S. education that are taking place during the pandemic. Sign up here to get the briefing by email.


“My 11-year-old daughter went back to school in London on June 1,” Jenny Anderson, a former Times reporter and veteran education journalist, told us. “She loved it. I tell you this not to make you hate me, but to offer you hope.”

Based on reporting from Jenny and our colleagues around the world, we’ve gathered some stories about how countries are preparing for the new school year.

(One key reminder: What works in one country won’t necessarily work in another, particularly those like the United States that have high rates of the coronavirus. We’ve listed some basic data for context; the U.S. has had a total of 1,708 reported cases per 100,000 people, and 98 per 100,000 in the last seven days.)

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Credit…Kimmo Brandt/EPA, via Shutterstock

143 total cases per 100,000; 3 per 100,000 in the last seven days

After a relatively mild outbreak of Covid-19 in March, schools closed for two months before reopening in May for the last few weeks of the academic year. Throughout the lockdown, the children of essential workers and children with special needs and circumstances continued attending school.

On Wednesday, Finland began its new school year with strict guidelines on hygiene and social distancing. The government, in an about-face from previous guidance, is now urging adults, but not children, to wear masks. Schools can switch between remote and in-person learning, except students in first through third grades and students with special needs, who will stay in classrooms.

Lesson: Lower viral rates allow more flexibility.

Credit…Sebastian Scheiner/Associated Press

1,121 total cases per 100,000; 110 per 100,000 in the last seven days

The country became a cautionary tale after reopening schools in late May, only to suffer a cluster of outbreaks at a high school that led to hundreds of infections. Israel tends to have large numbers of students in relatively small classrooms. Experts tracked many of the cases to a heat wave during which the government exempted children from wearing masks and shut the windows of classrooms so the air-conditioning could be more effective.

Israel’s weekly per capita cases are now among the highest in the world, but school is still set to resume on Sept. 1. One health official told The Jerusalem Post that bringing children back into the classroom could potentially crash the nation’s health care system: “One does not have to be a genius to see what happened in May and know that when schools open in full, teachers and students are going to get sick.”

Lesson: Disregarding safeguards can have drastic consequences.

Credit…Tim Franco for The New York Times

32 total cases per 100,000; 3 per 100,000 in the last seven days

For The Times’s Parenting section, our colleague Su-Hyun Lee interviewed one parent, Hong Yeon-Ju, about sending her 8-year-old daughter, Tae-yeon, above, back to school:

I figured we might as well adapt to the new normal rather than run away from the coronavirus out of fear. The near ubiquitous mask-wearing among Koreans gave me a peace of mind that things would more or less be OK.

In June, second graders, like Tae-yeon, went back to school for three hours a day in the morning twice a week, then once a week from July after infection cases jumped in the Seoul metropolitan area, where we live. Less than half of the school population was allowed on the K-12 campus at any given time with social distancing.

Masks and partitions will still be part of Tae-yeon’s return to school on Aug. 18. I wish my daughter and her friends could communicate freely without masks on and have fun at school. Still, if this has to be the new normal, we have to adapt to it.

Lesson: Precautions like masks can bring peace of mind.

Credit…Khadija Farah for The New York Times

61 total cases per 100,000; 5 per 100,000 in the last seven days

In July, the government took the drastic step of canceling the academic year and making students repeat their grades. The decision was made not just to protect teachers and students, but to address glaring issues of inequality: Some students had the means to access remote learning, but many others did not.

The country’s top education official warned this week that the new school year, slated to begin in January, was now in doubt if the country cannot flatten the curve of the virus and find additional funds to improve school infrastructure.

Lesson: It may be easier to shut schools down than to start them up again.

Credit…Oli Scarff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

485 cases per 100,000; 11 per 100,000 in the last seven days

On June 1, the country phased children back into school for the last six weeks of the academic year, starting with three younger grades.

“My fifth grader was in a pod of 16 students who stayed in the same class all day with teachers rotating in to them; they ate outside when they could,” Jenny told us. “Instead of tag, they played games that didn’t involve touching. No one wore masks.”

All U.K. students are expected to be back in school by early September with social distancing and self-contained groups of pupils. No masks are required.

Lesson: The experiences of the spring should inform the fall, but conditions will change.

So what does this all mean for U.S. schools? There is no clear comparison, because almost no country “has had the high levels of coronavirus infections that we do,” Apoorva Mandavilli, a Times science reporter, told us. “But one clear takeaway is that when transmission rates are low and they take all the precautions they should, schools do OK.”

Next week, The Times will have more coverage of how schools in Germany, Denmark, Norway, Italy and Britain are doing.


Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

This year, school nurses won’t just be dealing with allergic reactions, skinned knees and stomach aches. They’re on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’ll have to go to these schools and assess every sniffle and sneeze that could potentially be a positive case,” Janna Benzel, a nurse in Washington State who oversees 1,800 students, told The Times. “I just don’t know if I can do it alone.”

Less than 40 percent of U.S. schools had a full-time nurse on staff before the pandemic began.

“If there’s no school nurse, who has the expertise to really be able to handle these issues?” Dan Levin, who covers American youth for The Times, told us.

Some districts are trying to hire more nurses before the start of the semester. Mayor Bill de Blasio said that New York City hired a nurse for each of the city’s roughly 1,300 schools, under pressure from the teachers’ union.

In her own words: A school nurse in Paulding County, Ga., explained her decision to quit in The Washington Post.

Resources: The Texas Medical Association made a decision tree for nurses and educators when a student shows symptoms of Covid-19.



If your child is learning from home, it’s important for them to have separate spaces in the house: one space for them to work, to play and to be creative. Jackie Reeve, a writer at Wirecutter, the product review website owned by The New York Times, came up with a list of suggestions for designing a space where your kid knows they’re allowed to make a mess and get creative.

A dancer might take over the garage to boogie. A reader might need a nook. Jackie’s 8-year-old daughter loves science, and amuses herself with her science books, which she calls her “field guides.”

“Just follow what they’re interested in,” Jackie said.

One idea: Download this free coloring book, dedicated to mask wearing.


Amy Langr has spent over 15 years teaching elementary music in rural Iowa:

I left my position and transferred into a different role in an office. I still work for the district but now as a coordinator for home-school. I made this change because it would allow me out of the classroom, where I did not feel safe. There were no mask requirements, and it was stated at our board meeting that social distancing can only happen during 19 percent of the school day. My children will be home-schooled as well.

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