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What Back To School During A Pandemic Has Been Like For One School Nurse

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

For the third year in a row, American students are dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. This time, though, as they head back to school, we're seeing even more heated debates about masks in classrooms. Mississippi is among the states with the highest number of COVID cases in the country. We wanted to hear from a school nurse on what the beginning of the academic year has been like. So we called up Hagan Barber, who is the lead nurse for Lamar County Public Schools, which includes part of Hattiesburg. She joins us now.

Welcome to the show.

HAGAN BARBER: Thank you.

KHALID: So students and staff are required to wear masks. Is that right?

BARBER: Well, we didn't start off that way. When we first came back to school, we did not have to wear masks, but we quickly realized that that was going to be necessary.

KHALID: What made you all make that change?

BARBER: Well, we started on July 22. Within about a week and a half, the high schools and middle schools - some of them were having to shut down due to outbreaks. Within 2 1/2 weeks, several elementary schools had also had to shut down. It just - this variant of COVID is unbelievably potent. It's all I can say. It transmits so fast.

KHALID: So you mentioned that everyone is now masked up. That's not how you all initially began the school year. Did opposition to the idea of wearing masks change there in the county?

BARBER: Initially, there was some dissension, but I feel like after seeing, you know, how fast COVID can spread without some safeguards in place, I think parents have gotten more on board with wearing the masks.

KHALID: Have you personally seen a number of sick students?

BARBER: I have. I work at a pre-K through 5th grade school. So last year with COVID, most of our students that had to be quarantined were quarantined for close contact because a parent at home was sick, maybe an older brother or sister. But for the most part, didn't see a lot of sickness in the kids. They're mostly asymptomatic. But this year has been a whole different ballgame. We've had to quarantine whole classes because, you know, two or three students in that classroom tested positive, and some of them have been very sick.

KHALID: And I was reading that the Mississippi State Department of Health had reported out that - I believe it was the sixth child there in the state has died from COVID-19 complications.

BARBER: Yes. And I did hear that child was under the age of 5...

KHALID: Wow.

BARBER: ...Which is heartbreaking. We've had a little girl that we've kind of all been watching on social media. She's from our community - that was in the hospital for several weeks. And it was really touch and go with her.

KHALID: I'm curious what you wish that people who have been opposed to masking understand now from your vantage point.

BARBER: I wish that they could see the bigger picture that the nurses have to look at, and that's that we want to protect a whole school full of children. So, sometimes, that requires doing unpleasant things, like quarantining a class for the second time, you know, that school year. With the mask issue, in my mind, it's just a small sacrifice to make, and it does so much.

KHALID: How do the students seem to be handling all of this? I mean, are they anxious looking around and seeing that some of their fellow students are getting sick from the virus? Is there a sense of just recognition that this is just another year of the pandemic? We had to deal with this last year, as well. Just how has it been emotionally for students that you're speaking with?

BARBER: The kids at school are so used to it. They just - that's just what you do. You know, they're really good about social distancing themselves now and policing each other. They'll say, hey, don't forget your mask, you know? So I think the kids have actually seemed to handle it with a lot more grace than the adults.

KHALID: That's Hagan Barber. She's the lead nurse for Lamar County Public Schools, which includes part of Hattiesburg, Miss. Thanks for talking with us today.

BARBER: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.