January 28, 2020

School nurses and custodians stare down the flu and other illnesses

Author: Liza Frenette
Source:  NYSUT Communications
Carol Werblin, president of the Niskayuna Nurses Association
Caption: HOW MANY DOCUMENTED CASES OF THE FLU TO DATE? “We’re approaching 20 percent of the school’s population and it hasn’t peaked yet,” said Niskayuna middle school nurse Carol Werblin, president of the Niskayuna Nurses Association. Photo by Andrew Watson.

The first flu season of 2020 has school nurses on high alert as they care for weak and ill students, track cases and provide information to parents, school staff and county health departments.

Last week, there were 13,483 confirmed cases of flu in New York — up 22 percent from the prior week to according to the state health department.

In the Capital Region, Birchwood Elementary School in the Niskayuna district was closed last Friday due to so many cases of the flu; custodians scoured the building throughout the weekend. School nurse Kim Towne – who had gotten the flu herself – stressed the importance of staying home when sick to keep from spreading illness and to prevent contracting another illness.

On Tuesday, Towne was still working in a flurry of flu-struck kids. She sent home one kid who was vomiting and another child who had a 100-plus temperature. Thirty kids are out sick today at Birchwood, an improvement over the 50+ students home sick last Wednesday and Thursday.

She urges parents to keep sick children home. “Please don’t send them back if they’re just fever free; they are still worn out and susceptible to illness.”

At the high school, where four curtained sick beds are available for students, 25 more cases were reported on Monday. Seven students were sent home.

“We’re approaching 20 percent of the school’s population and it hasn’t peaked yet,” said Niskayuna middle school nurse Carol Werblin, president of the Niskayuna Nurses Association, a local union affiliated with NYSUT.


  • Keep students home when they have an elevated temperature in the morning. Do not just treat it and send them to school.
  • Keep a child home until fully well.
  • Wash hands frequently, use friction, and wash them for a sustained amount of time.

The school nurses are vigilant about finding out why students are absent, so they can track illnesses; alert the school community; and report to county health officials. Nurses contact the parent(s) of every child who is absent during first period and discuss the nature of the student’s illness.

“We promote close supervision of why children are absent,” Werblin said. “We certainly play an important part during times like this.”

She urges parents of ill students to get them to a doctor immediately. A doctor can perform a nasal swab and determine if the illness is the flu. If it is, early intervention with flu medicine can make a difference. Doctors also report flu findings to the state Department of Health.

The Niskayuna nurses' proactive approach to absenteeism helps to track flu cases. Speaking with parents on the phone makes a difference. In a conversation with one parent Werblin learned a student had a 103.2 fever. “That’s pretty high for a middle schooler in the morning. (Fevers tend to spike later in the day.) The kid was also achy. I recommended calling the doctor or urgent care because of the number of kids with flu,” Werblin said. Two hours later the parent called back. “The child had gone to urgent care and got a swab and did have the flu!’

Calling a parent about a child absent from first period is also important when the student is a walker to school, because something may have gone awry.

Until recently, the 1,400 students at Niskayuna High School had only one nurse to care for them; but just this week approval was received to hire a second nurse. The union helped make the case for the new hire.

“We convinced administrators of the need for a second RN. We tracked illnesses and used statistics,” Werblin said. “It’s great to have representation who understands what you do. We’re medical personnel in an educational setting.”

Werblin was consulting with health officials on Tuesday about the Corona virus, which originated in China. At least one student in the district has traveled to China, but has not returned yet, she said.

In cases of widespread illness, nurses also work more directly with custodians.

Custodians are often unsung heroes in the quest to keep schools safe and clean during cold and flu season and flu outbreaks.

Thomas Stafford, a 32-year custodian and member of Brushton-Moira Support Staff Association, pointed out that special attention needs to be paid to surfaces that are touched frequently by many different sets of hands throughout the day.

“There’s a lot more emphasis on desks, chairs and light switches,” he said.

Stair railings, computer keyboards and phones also warrant extra attention. While Stafford said his district is not experiencing a flu outbreak, “We all take it pretty serious,” he said.

He said the custodial team works with school nurses to help discern if there are areas that need specific attention and concentration, such as when illness breaks out more in one class.