School nurses: A tough job made tougher by COVID-19

One sees a lot working in an emergency room or intensive care unit. Julee Corcoran has done both and had good reason to think being a school nurse would be less taxing.

Maybe in another year, but not in 2020.

Corcoran is in her first year with the Oglesby Elementary School District and COVID-19 has made this “the biggest challenge” of her 17-year nursing career, and that has included trauma care.

“Learning this new job during a normal school year would be challenging,” Corcoran said. “I feel like all of the staff and students are all new this year because the pandemic is something that hopefully we will only have to deal with once in a lifetime.”

If you’re a battle-tested health professional looking for excitement, chances are there’s a school in need of your services. School districts have always needed on-site nurses to take temperatures and probe scalps for head lice and have found takers among semi-retired nurses searching for banker’s hours after midnights at the hospital.

But that was before the novel coronavirus. Now, schools are ground zero for heading off COVID-19 infections and nurses are experiencing stress not usually endured on campus.

“This has been a brand new challenge that I have never experienced,” said Shannon Matteson, a certified school nurse with 20 years in pediatrics who splits her time between the Wallace and Waltham school districts.

“COVID-19 symptoms are very difficult to manage,” Matteson said. “There are many symptoms on the list that also are on the list for the common cold, stomach flu, and influenza. So, truly, this is about looking at the whole picture and using your best nursing judgment.”

Corcoran said the toughest part of their job is trying to follow the “constantly changing” guidelines put in place by the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control.

It’s a cumbersome drill keeping everyone safe. Kids are admitted into the building only after at-home screening, done with parental input via Teacherease. For those kids not screened at home, staff do temperature checks and look for symptoms before children get on the bus.

Once the kids are inside, the faculty watches hawk-like for symptoms. Children who show symptoms are removed from the classroom and placed in a separate room. They also send any siblings home if COVID is suspected.

“Every situation is different but we follow the same guidelines for each student,” Corcoran said. “The challenge this year is trying to keep everyone calm and informed. The other challenge for me is having to tell parents that they will have to leave work to care for their child.”

Michelle Mershon can relate to that and she’s not a nurse or health professional.

Mershon is principal at St. Bede Academy which has not had a nurse in more than two decades. Both the administration and faculty at St. Bede share duties in trying to inhibit the spread of COVID-19. To that end, four administrators, faculty and staff members complete the temperature checks each morning before 8 a.m.

“This a difficult time for everyone,” Mershon said. “We are working very hard to keep our students safe and healthy in school. The school can only do so much: maintain social distance, wear a mask, wash hands and use hand sanitizer. What students do outside the school is as important if not more important to keeping the school open.”

It’s a big job for all educators and it’s about to get harder. Corcoran pointed out we’re approaching cold and flu season and that will complicate the screening process.

“It is going to be extremely difficult to differentiate between COVID and influenza and they are both spread similarly. I hope this ends soon but I have a feeling this “New Way” is going to be here for quite some time. The only way to get through this is to work together.”

Surprisingly, one of the challenges hasn’t been compliance. Kids could be reasonably expected to bristle at masks, hand sanitizer and standing 6 feet apart. True, the little ones need gentle reminders to wear their masks appropriately, Corcoran said, but overall she’s been “shocked” at the spirit of cooperation.

“I thought it was going to be a battle,” she admitted. “The students have been unbelievably wonderful about social distancing and wearing the proper PPE. These kids are adaptable and change their routine much better than adults.”

Mershon said social distancing offers a “unique challenge” during in-person instruction, but overall students have done an excellent job wearing a mask at all times in the building.

“The students have been amazing,” Matteson agreed. “Kids are truly resilient and love to learn.”

Matteson said parents can help by practicing what they preach. Children learn by example and will note when their parents practice infection controls and tune in to COVID-19 alerts and state guidelines.

“I feel that it is important to teach the same standards at home that are taught at school.  Encourage and model proper hand washing,” she said. “Encourage and model mask wearing when you are inside places other than your own home and outside when not socially distanced.

“Do not encourage or partake in social gatherings that do not adhere to our COVID-19 state guidelines and that in turn will keep our students safer at school.”

“I would like to tell the parents, ‘Thank You,’” Corcoran said. “You are all doing a wonderful job during this crazy, complex, scary, and frustrating time. We are all doing the best we can.”

Tom Collins

Tom Collins covers criminal justice in La Salle County.