With cold and flu season fast approaching, local school nurses say COVID-19 testing is key to helping keep kids in class and maintaining a healthy and safe environment for all students and staff. And on some area campuses, that testing is even being offered on-site.

Current guidance from the state health department advises students who develop new and unexplained symptoms of COVID-19 — such as fever or chills, a cough and a runny nose — get tested for the coronavirus or stay home from school for 10 days before returning.

“Saying ‘it’s just a cold’ doesn’t make it true and certainly doesn’t help control the spread of any illness,” said Carolyn Tilton, the nurse for Nelson Elementary School and Wells Memorial School in Harrisville. “Staying home and following the [N.H. Department of Health and Human Services’] recommendations is the best way to help keep everyone in our community healthy and safe.”

But as the more-contagious delta variant has driven a spike in cases locally and nationwide, Cheshire Medical Center in Keene — the only hospital locally doing community COVID-19 testing, in addition to pharmacies and urgent-care facilities — has seen an increased demand for testing. This can make it more difficult for kids to get tested, and more frustrating for their families, said Carrie Frederiksen, the nurse at Mount Caesar Elementary School in Swanzey Center.

“It’s kind of tough,” she said. “… Some of my students are already on their second cold this year, and their parents are understandably frustrated that their child has to get another COVID test, or miss 10 days.”

With coronavirus tests at the heart of schools’ strategies for keeping kids healthy and in classrooms, several area schools have begun conducting their own rapid tests on site through the state health department’s Safer at School Screening program (SASS). The program, which is free to schools, provides staff with the materials for testing, which parents must consent to before their children participate.

“Here at Wheelock, we offer rapid testing,” said Whitney Linnenbringer, the nurse at the Keene elementary school. “So for our school population, we can do a rapid antigen test here at school and hopefully minimize the time they would need to be absent.”

Linnenbringer said she considers the results of these rapid tests, which take about 30 minutes to yield results, on a case-by-case basis. If a test comes back negative, and a student presented only a mild symptom like a runny nose, they can come back to school. But if the negative test result comes from a student who had multiple, and perhaps more severe, symptoms, Linnenbringer recommends they seek further treatment before they return.

“And then there’s some gray area in the middle,” she said. “... Some kids need a day or two. If they have a viral illness, they can’t make it through a day. They’re tired; they need to rest.”

Traci Fairbanks is the nurse at Chesterfield School, which also offers rapid testing. The results, she said, are helpful in making recommendations to a student’s family, but school nurses consider the results in the context of “normal sick day management.”

“I really focus on, ‘You have to be healthy to access your education’,” Fairbanks said. “Just like when you go to work, if you’re not well, you’re not going to be high-performing. So I really underscore that message. I did it before COVID, and I’ll do it after COVID.”

Keene High School is also in the process of implementing on-site coronavirus testing, Nicole Boudle, one of two nurses at the school, said.

“So hopefully that will take off some of the burden. I do hear from parents that it is hard to get tests,” she said. “... Hopefully this will help keep kids in school, be able to help them not fall behind.”

For some schools, though, on-site testing isn’t a viable option.

“It’s not something I want to do at my school,” Frederiksen, the nurse at Mount Caesar, said. “My students are preschool to 2nd grade, so I’m really hesitant to test them without having a parent present at my school. So with this age group, it’s hard to do a nasal swab without having parents present. But it’s difficult to get testing done in the area right now.”

In addition to COVID-19 testing, Frederiksen said students, families and school staff should follow the same procedures public health experts have advised since the beginning of the pandemic.

“It’s the advice that’s out there already — wearing masks, hand-washing, and trying to stay away from the large group activities, unfortunately, because this is where it’s spreading,” she said. “Last year, we had a really healthy year when everybody was following all those rules, and where people are a little more lax about it this year, we’re seeing a lot of illness already.”

Tilton, the nurse in Harrisville and Nelson, said she empathizes with families who continue to find COVID-19 protocols difficult to navigate.

“I know how hard this is for families as I have my own family as well and we have been struggling to make it through this challenging time right there with everyone,” she said in an email. “My hope is that we all can continue to try and be kind and understanding, knowing that we all are doing the best we can and we all have the same goal of keeping everyone healthy and safe.”

And as the academic year progresses, she added that communication between schools and families will continue to be paramount to maintaining a healthy educational environment.

“Accurate, honest, and open communication is so important while navigating our current situation,” she said. “One student coming to school sick can lead to a cascade of students and staff not being at school with new/unexplained symptoms, causing disruption in the lives of multiple families and many unhealthy, uncomfortable students.”

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.