Mead School District:
Grit and resilience in the face of overwhelming challenges.
The term “rockstar” might be used a bit too much these days, but when it comes to Nurses Carrie Dinwoodie and Ruth Erb of Mead School District, it’s hard not to step back and say, “Wow… what a couple of true rockstars!”
The district prides itself on positioning students for success now and in the future by providing each student with an outstanding education, building and maintaining safe schools, and partnering with their community. It was no easy feat for Mead to maintain those standards when the COVID pandemic began, but they did – and they continue to do so with a mix of community engagement, daily and accessible COVID testing, and sheer grit.
Dinwoodie and Erb worked with an amazing team across 16 schools to provide testing to students and families in heat, sleet, snow and cold, offering drive-through rapid antigen and PCR testing before, during and after school through spring 2022. This allowed Mead to provide testing for every family, every health room and every sports team on top of the daily care they provide for students. Mead still provides testing at all 16 schools.
“The team at Mead School District has done a great job over the last two years in providing COVID testing opportunities to students and the school community. They figured out how to provide testing and implement guidance in ever changing situations. Ruth and Carrie provide great leadership in their district and willingly share their lessons learned with others in our region.”
– Amy Lutz, ESD 101, Public Health Program Specialist
We asked Nurses Dinwoodie and Erb to share their story with L2R, including challenges, successes, and recommendations for other schools. Their responses (only slightly edited for length) are below.
L2R: Tell us about how you’ve structured your school testing program.
Carrie Dinwoodie: Mead was one of the first districts (if not the very first) to be funded by LTR. This provided money for extended nursing hours, hiring additional testing staff to help with before and after school testing and opening a dedicated testing site outside of a school building. We began our testing program March 2021 in all 16 school buildings. For the 2021-2022 school year we offered drive-through testing for staff, students and families before, during and after school, Monday – Friday for the majority of the school year. All 16 Mead District school buildings offered rapid antigen and PCR testing in school and curbside during the school day.
L2R: What is it like to work with your Learn to Return Program Manager or ESD Regional Coordinator? How have they supported you? What support do you find most valuable?
CD: Amy Lutz, ESD101, Public Health Program Specialist, has been an excellent resource for up-to-date testing information. She has a great working relationship with SRHD and offers us another resource with the latest requirement/recommendation information from local and state health departments. When we were about to run short of tests during the height of our testing last winter she was able to coordinate with another district to get us enough tests to get by until we received our DOH shipment. We are lucky to have Amy as part of our regional team!
L2R: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your COVID-19 testing program and how did you overcome it?
CD: Once we received our guidance from Spokane Regional Health District for the 2021-2022 school year, Ruth and I met with our COVID committee to plan out what Test To Stay would look like in our schools. We knew that each school would need to offer testing for students in order to “spread out” the workload. Our district had obtained money from Learn to Return in order to offer our nurses extra hours before and after school – but there are only so many hours in a day and we definitely didn’t want the nurses to burn-out in the first month of school. In addition to Test to Stay for regular school attendance, athletics was a whole other entity involving WIAA, DOH and SRHD testing requirements.
Our biggest challenge was the volume of testing required at every school, with every family, in every health room and every sports team, on top of the daily care we provided for our students with and without chronic health conditions. Our diabetics still needed their daily care. Our nurses needed to respond to injuries, seizures and illness while managing the illness/testing requirements of COVID. Families were counting on us to provide testing to keep their kids in school.
It got to the point where testing wasn’t just a mitigation tool, it was the lightning rod pointing a family down the COVID road for the next 1-3 weeks because at that point once one person got it, most of the family followed.
We were able to manage this by opening a drive-up testing site that offered before and after school testing. Ill or exposed students and families were directed to swing by there before school in order to get the “all clear” to head to school or head back home with a positive test.
Jared Hoadley, our Assistant Superintendent and Brian Liberg, our Transportation Director at the time, rounded up a portable construction trailer, orange cones and made “Student Testing Here” signs to direct traffic through a vacant parking lot. We worked outside in the elements with the first stop being a registration checkpoint with a Chromebook and portable internet hot-spot in a nearby school bus. From there the cars were directed to the portable construction trailer which was big enough for about 2-3 people to be inside with a countertop and tests laid out across every surface waiting to be interpreted. A nurse would walk up to the car window (or windows if the whole car needed to be tested!), verify if they needed PCR or rapid test, swab the nose and bring the specimens back to the trailer for testing to be completed. A nurse would call families with positive results. “No news is good news!” was our send off as we pointed them toward the exit.
In November we moved to a building with a covered sidewalk and overhead heat! The biggest challenge there was to make sure families weren’t being tested on their way to a Seahawks game! I mean, we were very amenable but….we did have our limits! We hired and trained 3 paraeducators to staff the site in addition to 1-2 nurses. It was a well oiled machine that was able to accommodate about 60 tests/hour. Our first week we tested 175 students and at our peak in Jan 2022, we had 350+ coming through the drive through test site each week. It took some of the burden off our health rooms in the buildings as we were able to direct families there instead of having them come to the school throughout the day.
L2R: What advice would you give other schools at this point in the pandemic?
CD: Once we received our guidance from Don’t hesitate to get started testing if you haven’t done it yet. As I write this in late February 2023, COVID community levels are relatively low. It’s unlikely that we’ll experience another January 2022! And even if we do get to that point, we’ll be ready! Reach out to schools that have done the testing – the learning curve is steep but totally doable.
L2R: What strategies do you use for your testing program that you’d recommend to other schools?
CD: Talk to your local health jurisdiction! We had SRHD Epidemiologists Mark, Lisa and Veronica’s phone numbers programmed into our cell phones and they were AMAZING at answering all of our questions over and over again with each changing requirement. They had weekly, sometimes bi-weekly, zoom calls with all of the area school nurses and other school personnel where we could ask questions and see what other districts were doing. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel – talk to someone who’s already doing it.
L2R: How has your school’s COVID testing program addressed institutional or structural inequity that is present in your community?
CD: For those that returned to school this year we are already saying “remember when…” as we pass each monthly milestone and COVID has not overtaken our schools again. Florence Nightingale said, “I think one’s feelings waste themselves in words; they ought all to be distilled into actions which bring results.”
Our district took action last year – choosing to take charge of testing and offering it not only to students and staff at the convenience of their individual schools but also for their families, so that every student had a chance to come to school or participate in sports without the barrier of finding or paying for a COVID test.
L2R: Tell us anything! Is there anything else you’d like us to know? Is there something we didn’t ask here that you wish we had?
CD: We thought we were maxed out on our testing capability in September 2021 when we had run 3,500 tests by the end of the month. We thought, “Whew! Beginning-of-the-year surge is over…!” Ha Ha! Testing increased to 5,000 tests/month in October and November thanks in part to athletics (and outbreaks). But then…in the 15 days of school that we had in January 2022 we completed 9,090 tests with a positivity rate of 25%. Our district only has 10,600 students! The numbers still give me pause for how much COVID there was affecting every single family in our community one way or another. I am still in awe of how professional and compassionate our nurses and school staff were when dealing with our community; doing our best to come up with safe and creative options to keep students in school, music and sports.
Unless you work in a service industry with the public you may never truly understand how polarizing and ugly the pandemic was for those of us on the front line. I’ve had to keep reminding people that “COVID’s not gone” and the trauma we all experienced in one way or another has changed us as a society is not gone either, but I believe we all surprised ourselves with how gritty and resilient we can be when faced with a seemingly overwhelming challenge. We did it and we are proud of it.