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'A total rock star': Moline-Coal Valley school nurse takes on COVID-19, contact tracing in the district
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'A total rock star': Moline-Coal Valley school nurse takes on COVID-19, contact tracing in the district

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Registered nurse Kim Nelson has worn a lot of hats during her health care career, from her past days of critical care nursing to her current role serving as coordinator of nursing services for Moline-Coal Valley schools.

“Typical nurse,” she said. “I went through the whole gamut of things.”

Nelson may have thought she’d experience a full range of nursing iterations, but 2020 brought her a new title: certified contact tracer.

Nelson, who has worked for the district about 20 years, said she knew this year would be like no other due to COVID-19. She opted this summer to complete the COVID-19 contact tracing course offered by Johns Hopkins University. Since that time, another nurse in the district has completed the training and others plan to follow suit.

Locally, in addition to the Moline-Coal Valley nurses, Rock Island-Milan lead nurse Phyllis Whaley, RN, BSN, has also completed the Johns Hopkins course to become a certified contact tracer. According to the course website, more than 740,000 people total have enrolled in the free, six-hour online course that teaches the science of COVID-19 as well as the basics and the ethics of contact tracing.

Nelson had high praise for the course.

“It was phenomenal,” she said. “An abundance of information on COVID-19. As a certified contact tracer it enables you to do contact tracing —  if we have someone on staff or a student report they have a positive COVID result, we go back and reach out to them to find out who they’ve been in contact with in the period of time they were considered infectious.”

In addition to learning more about the virus, another prong of the district’s COVID-19 response was to bump up its nursing staff to 17. Nelson said she believes Moline-Coal Valley is better staffed than many other districts in the nation, and prior to the increase only a couple buildings were sharing a nurse.

“We felt like it was going to be a really important year and that every building needed their own nurse, instead of sharing between two buildings,” Nelson said.

Moline-Coal Valley began the school year Aug. 24. As of Sept. 14, superintendent Rachel Savage said about 70 percent of the district’s 7,210 students are learning on the hybrid model and 30 percent are attending remotely.

From the start of the year through Sept. 14 Moline-Coal Valley has seen five positive COVID-19 cases among staff and students — four reported between Sept. 1 and Sept. 14. District staff update the COVID-19 statistics every Monday on the district’s website,

Those positive cases have allowed Nelson, in conjunction with other district nurses and staff, to put their contact tracing skills to work. She said this work looks at both time during and outside of the school day.

“Which kids played with one another at an extracurricular?” she said. “Who spent the night with somebody? Anybody in that time they went out to lunch with? We then quarantine those kids — in other words keep them out of school.”

With the aim of shutting down the ability for individuals to pass on the virus early in the process, identified students shift to remote learning and are required to sit out of extra-curricular happenings.

Nelson said the work of tracing has to start at square one by reaching out to the staff member or a student’s parents or guardians.

“We just start from scratch. When did you get sick? Symptoms? When did you get test results? When was the last time in school?” Nelson said. “And then we just go backward. When were you with them? What was the situation? How long, and with masks? Close proximity?”

How much time does this whole process take? Nelson said the only answer is a long time. And she couldn’t put an estimate on the number of individuals that might need to be contacted following just one positive case. Part of the challenge for contact tracing in schools, she said, is working with children to help piece together all the needed information. She said parents have been wonderfully cooperative, pulling out calendars and cell phones to aid the process.

Like other districts in the county, Moline-Coal Valley works closely with the Rock Island County Health Department to do this work. All the same, Nelson said the district saw value in getting staff certified for contact tracing.

“We felt by being able to at least start the process in-house so to speak, that would be hugely beneficial. Not only to us, but to the health department. If we could get a jump on it,” she said. “It certainly feels like all hands on deck. The more help we have the better – just not knowing what lies down the road.”

Nelson said she could not say enough about the district’s team of nurses and that everyone has worked to learn about the virus and relay information to staff and parents.

“They have really stepped up to the occasion,” she said. “They have completely changed their mindset on what their days look like and they have gone above and beyond.”

Nelson said the district’s primary goal is to reach out to staff and students of the district — contact tracing that spans to those not attached to the district is handled by the health department. Any needed testing is also handled outside of the district, with Nelson referring individuals to testing sites or the health department.

Both Nelson and Savage said they feel like the district is positioned well for weathering what COVID-19 may bring.

“So far we are in a great situation,” Nelson siad. “In a good spot, but knowing things can change any given day and the more people that can help the better.”

Savage recently shared high praise for Nelson at the Sept. 14 board of education meeting. Savage said Nelson is a key driver in the district’s COVID-19 response, calling her a “total rock star.”

“She’s ensured we have a direct link with the county health department and that things are being done properly using her professional medical lens to ensure we’re making the right decisions,” Savage told board members.

Savage credited Nelson for reaching out to staff and students as needed, obtaining class lists for contact tracing, and generally staying on the ball in circumstances that could change in an instant.

“It’s a quite a thorough process that I’ve observed,” Savage said. “This is fluid and changing. If our landscape changes, we’re open to changes or guidance.”

In addition to COVID-19 work, Nelson and district staff are also working diligently to ensure district students get their state required physicals and vaccines by the Oct. 15 deadline. Savage said this week about 20 percent of students still have yet to verify they’ve met requirements. Savage said while this number is not out of line compared to past years, the district is taking extra measures to ensure families of both hybrid and remote students understand they must meet the state’s requirements.

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