In a normal school year, Florida Department of Health-Flagler Nursing Specialist Stephanie Ear helps manage student vaccination efforts, makes sure children are checked for conditions like scoliosis, teaches school staff how to administer emergency medications and helps ensure school clinics are running smoothly.
But this year, she's been tasked with managing the health department's effort to keep COVID-19 from spreading through the school system.
"Now, everything is about COVID," she said. "A lot of case investigation, a lot of receiving concerns."
"The role she plays and benefit she makes to two organizations — us and the school system, and community at large — is beyond words."
— BOB SNYDER, health officer, Florida Department of Health-Flagler
Ear, who began working for the health department in 2013, coordinates the department's contact with school staff and parents on COVID-19. She's often the one who calls parents to tell them their child has been exposed to the virus and must quarantine.
"Of all our employees, Stephanie interacts with other organizations — in this case, the school district and our largest partner — more than anyone else in our health department," Florida Department of Health-Flagler Health Officer Bob Snyder said. "The role she plays and benefit she makes to two organizations — us and the school system, and community at large — is beyond words."
Any positive case involving a school-age child results in a message to Ear, who manages a contact-tracing effort.
"One case takes a lot of time," she said. "A lot of parents — with the shock of hearing that, they’re angry."
She's had to get used to being yelled at on the phone. At first, that was hard. But she's learned how to manage those interactions.
"I just let them vent and scream and yell, and then most of the time they call me back and apologize, and they’re like, 'You caught me off guard,'" she said. "I find that if you give them a little time … that they kind of calm down."
The angriest parents are often the ones whose children's sports activities must end because of a quarantine. But they do comply, she said.
Knowing who should quarantine can be tricky. In younger grades, if one student is infected, that might mean the entire class should quarantine, because young children have trouble with social distancing.
In older grades, contact tracing means talking to teachers and staff members about who a child has been in close contact with, with "close contact" defined as being within 6 feet for at least 15 minutes.
It's toughest when an infected student has been taking a bus or is in a class with a substitute teacher, since bus drivers can't always know where the kids are sitting, and subs often don't know them well enough to remember who was sitting where or interacting with whom.
"If [staff members] don’t know or are not sure, I’ll have to quarantine the whole class, because I’d rather be safe," Ear said.
Calling parents can take much of the evening — sometimes ending as late as 10 p.m. when they're hard to reach — and the work can continue seven days a week.
Not reaching a parent might mean that a child who was exposed to the virus ends up at school the next morning and must immediately be moved to the school clinic before they expose — and potentially infect — other children or staff members.
But by reaching the right people at the right time, Ear can help protect others from getting sick.
"A friend of mine asked me, 'Do you like your job?' You know what? I love my job," Ear said. "This part of my job is very challenging, but it’s also very fulfilling. Yes, it’s stressful, but it's making a difference. It helps other people; it’s not about me. And if I can just be an extra hand to help out parents or staff or teachers, that is fulfilling to me."