Seattle school nurses, parents say contact tracers are overwhelmed

SEATTLE — Nurses in the Seattle School District say contact tracers are overwhelmed with the work load, even leading to delays in some families getting notified about COVID-19 exposures.

The district had 156 new cases over the last two weeks, mostly among students. But the work volume is not the only problem.

School nurse, M.C. Nachtigal, works at Fairmount Park and Genesee Hill elementary schools in West Seattle. She said the COVID contact tracing policies the school district developed with public health are good, but there are challenges when it comes to implementing the plan.

“That is the part that’s been not as clear. There’s been some confusion on, wait am I supposed to do this? Or am I waiting on the district person to call? Of course we know that uncertainty can lead to more stress,” Nachtigal said.

SPS central office has four nurses who now work full time as contact tracers.

“I know they’re working into the evening, into the weekends,” Nachtigal said.

Some of the contact tracing work like gathering information, or recommending how long a student should stay home, also falls on building nurse. Those new responsibilities plus COVID testing are added on top of their regular duties taking care of sick kids.

“Obviously there are just not enough people to do the job at this point, which is where a lot of the frustration on the part of families and staff at schools, and some of the uncertainty for the building nurses lies. We can’t quickly get an answer on who is supposed to do this,” Nachtigal said. “We do an enormous amount of talking amongst ourselves as nurses to say, how did they do it at your school?” she said.

Nachtigal says there have been situation where nurses can’t reach a family member to tell them their kid has been exposed until the next day.

“If even one step of this process gets delayed by a full day, that can be significant,” Nachtigal said.

Parents like Michael Eversole say that’s a problem. He has a third-grade student at Broadview-Thompson Elementary, but is currently choosing to keep his kid at home.

“It’s frustrating, it’s frustrating and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight,” Eversole said. “If we’re not actively informing people to trace COVID in schools, then we have a bigger issue in our community that’s affecting everyone,” he said.

“I think SPS, when they had the opportunity to come up with this plan, should’ve also taken the opportunity to staff that plan,” Eversole said.

SPS spokesperson Tim Robinson said any staff with confusion about what to do should reach out to their supervisor.

“I’m not defending the procedure that exists as being crystal clear and perfect and working just great every single day, but I will say that with public health we did establish the contact tracing protocol,” Robinson said.

He acknowledged the large work volumes with contact tracing that staff are currently dealing with.

“It is a huge undertaking,” Robinson said. “My hat is off to all of the teams who are dealing with this. It’s very hard,” he said.

But Robinson says that’s why the district has asked to bring on a third-party company to supply contact tracers to help out Seattle Public Schools. The school board approved the $1.5 million contract with Columbia Safety in Kennewick last Wednesday, to bring on 12 full-time workers. The company said on Monday they will start within a few weeks and that contract materials were being finalized. The dozen contracted employees will stay on through June 2022.

“It’s great we are bringing on that new organization because we do need to keep on top of this. We need to keep ahead of this because the situation is dire,” Robinson said.

Nachtigal said their union, Seattle Education Association (which also represents teachers), is also working with the district to develop more clear roles for building nurses and district contact tracers on how to best clarify responsibilities.