One of Blair Payne’s favorite parts of being a nurse at Amherst Middle School is not knowing what the day will bring in serving students’ needs.
A tummy ache. A broken arm. A global pandemic.
While COVID-19 was not among the illnesses she ever expected to respond to last year, Payne didn’t hesitate in serving on the front lines. She said the highlight of the recent 2020-21 school year was helping deliver vaccines at Amherst County High School clinics held jointly by the division and the county’s public safety department.
“Not only were we caring for the students, the teachers and the families but also the whole Amherst County community,” Payne said. “People cried when we gave them the vaccines. They were just so thankful and appreciative being able to receive it.”
Payne, a county native who grew up in Madison Heights, is entering into her fifth year as a school nurse. She recently was announced as one of two of the Amherst County Public Schools’ support staff of the year award winners, an honor she said she was humbled and shocked to receive.
She said all of the nurses and health assistants in ACPS were completely overwhelmed this past year with dealing with the mitigation responses to COVID-19.
“Everyone stepped up to the plate,” Payne said of those workers going above and beyond their normal job duties.
A 2001 graduate of ACHS, her grandfather was a local doctor and she had been around the medical field her entire life. She graduated from Lynchburg College with aspirations to become a news broadcaster. Her grandmother’s bout with cancer changed her career direction.
“Just seeing the connection the hospice nurse made with our family just kind of reignited that passion for health care,” Payne said.
She attended nursing school with Centra and went to work at Lynchburg General Hospital’s cardiac intensive care unit. Payne said she loved working with patients dealing with heart issues and treating those needs, which carried over into her transitioning into the schools.
“Every day is completely new and I like that surprise,” Payne said.
She loves working with students and easing their initial fears or hesitancy of interacting with a medical provider.
“It’s great,” she said of the daily interactions. “The relationship-building is essential for my job.”
In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic brought forth many challenges, including ensuring as school nurse a vast amount of policies in terms of safety and health measures were followed, educating others about the proper way to wear masks and getting the correct information about COVID-19 to families.
A lot of long workdays, some weekends and much investigative work with contact tracing in responding to the virus all were part of the 2020-21 experience, she said.
Overall, she felt the division did an amazing job in making the school year a success with a hybrid system of in-person and remote learning. The custodial staff also did crucial work in keeping the schools clean, she added.
“Our kids are so resilient,” she said of their ability to make it through the challenging climate.
During the vaccine clinics, which launched in early February for ACPS staff and eventually opened up to the entire community for the following several months, she said some people could not leave their vehicles to come inside the gym. She and other nurses went directly to them to make sure they had the shot.
“I got the privilege of going out to the cars and vaccinating those high-risk individuals,” Payne said. “It was heartwarming.”
Assistant Superintendent William Wells said as the division’s COVID-19 cases grew this past year, additional assistance was needing in managing the response. Payne was brought on to the COVID-19 response team and she was an immediate help, he said.
“She assisted with contact tracing, assisting school nurses with their response, and our overall response to the pandemic,” Wells said. “She was an essential part of the vaccination clinics as she organized and oversaw the nurses who participated in the clinics. She was a vital member of the team and we would not have been as successful with our COVID response and vaccination clinics without her assistance.”
Amherst Middle School Principal Kelly Holmes said Payne does all she can to help students, staff and faculty.
“She’s an amazing person,” Holmes said.
Payne was a major part in keeping students safe and was dedicated in making sure the mitigation strategies were followed, he said.
“Blair has always been a go-to person for our school nursing team and this year she really became a leader,” said Marie Petrone, supervisor of accountability and student wellness at ACPS. “We would not have been as successful in keeping schools open without her helping us to contact trace, supporting families in getting medical care, and coordinating the vaccination clinics.”
Payne said if people not familiar with the coronavirus could personalize the disease, they would get a better understanding of it, explaining people are affected differently. She’s seen mild cases to serious ones that required hospitalizations.
She said administrators at Amherst Middle, as well as in the division, have been wonderful to work with and come to when she’s been overwhelmed and frustrated.
“It’s just leaning on each other,” Payne said of educators’ persevering through the challenges.
She said she was bracing for another shutdown of in-person learning and an all-virtual mandate that never came, which she said is a testament to the sound mitigation strategies and safety measures in place.
Students also had a healthy fear of the situation and made sure they wore masks properly, kept proper social distancing and washed their hands, she said.
A major lesson learned was going with the flow through all the “what ifs,” she said.
“I learned how to be in the moment and focus on what I had to do and appreciate a normal year,” Payne said.
The wife of Brandon Payne, a Town of Amherst police officer, and mother of three children, including two at Amherst Middle this school year, Blair Payne said her kids love coming to school. Her children were glad to have those face-to-face interactions this past school year, she said.
“I think that just speaks to how well Amherst County [schools] did,” she said.