School nurses are stretched thin after pulling double duty during the pandemic

After months of juggling added COVID-19 duties, vaccines could lighten the school nursing load and help them refocus on student needs.

WBEZ
Bridget Heroff is the nursing coordinator for the Barrington School District and president-elect of the Illinois Association of School Nurses. She says staffing issues during the pandemic are drawing attention to the longtime goal of having a nurse in every school. Courtesy of Bridget Heroff / WBEZ
WBEZ
Bridget Heroff is the nursing coordinator for the Barrington School District and president-elect of the Illinois Association of School Nurses. She says staffing issues during the pandemic are drawing attention to the longtime goal of having a nurse in every school. Courtesy of Bridget Heroff / WBEZ

School nurses are stretched thin after pulling double duty during the pandemic

After months of juggling added COVID-19 duties, vaccines could lighten the school nursing load and help them refocus on student needs.

A lot of activity surrounds Cameron Traut as she sits at her desk. The phone rings, the walkie talkie goes off and she jumps to help when she hears a student might need an EpiPen for an allergy.

Traut is a school nurse at Libertyville High School in the northern suburbs. She says this is typical for a school nurse. She has the predictable tasks like giving students scheduled medications and the unpredictable emergencies that happen on a daily basis. But this year, as the pandemic continues, school nurses have a second job juggling all the COVID-19 mitigations.

“A lot of times, I will end up having to take work home that I can’t get done during the day,” Traut said. “I’ve shifted everything at home to be able to complete the reports that are due for the meeting tomorrow.”

Traut says the extra work of COVID-19 testing and contact tracing is necessary to keep kids in class as much as possible, but it’s a major undertaking for school nurses. Traut considers herself fortunate that her district has hired more nurses, but she says she could always use more help. Many schools didn’t have enough support before the pandemic, and are struggling even more so now.

The staffing issues are drawing attention to a long-standing problem of nurse understaffing and the longtime goal of having a nurse in every school, says Bridget Heroff, the president-elect of the Illinois Association of School Nurses. The more support school nurses have, Heroff and others say, the better they’re able to focus on other student needs that have built up during the pandemic.

“There are some students who, really, the only health care personnel that they see consistently is the school nurse,” said Heroff, who is also the nursing coordinator for the Barrington School District. “Working with those families who have students who have asthma, diabetes, food allergies, seizures — they all rely heavily on the school nurse to provide health care for their students.”

Heroff says students missed out on a lot last year when buildings were closed. More kids are dealing with mental health issues, too. “Some of it is playing catch up and trying to get back into the routines,” she said. “Helping to advocate for what those students need is a huge part of this year.”

The more support and help nurses have, the more they say they can focus on the core responsibility of their job: keeping students physically and emotionally healthy.

“They just continue to work”

Instead, nurses in many schools across Illinois and across the country are busy running COVID-19 mitigation efforts on top of their regular jobs.

This includes managing contact tracing and testing in many school districts. Nearly 400 school districts and K-12 institutions in the state have signed up for the state-provided SHIELD testing. A third party conducts weekly COVID-19 tests on students who have opted in. About 946,000 tests have been administered since Aug. 1, with 3,800 positive. School nurses keep track of all of that data and jump in to do contact tracing when there’s a positive case.

Some schools are trying to offer more help with these COVID-19 mitigation efforts.

“I know different districts are combating it in different ways,” Heroff said. “There’s been a big push to hire more school nurses, which is amazing.”

Heroff says some schools have hired more people or gotten temporary help from nursing students. But in other districts, a single nurse might need to divide their time between multiple schools, and it’s stretching them thin.

“I know there’s a lot of nurses who are not taking lunch, and they go home and they just continue to work at home on the weekends,” she said. “You’re not really getting a break from the work, which is really unfortunate and can definitely lead to some burnout.”

Heroff says the extra work has also come with some push back from parents who have taken out their COVID-19 frustrations on nurses.

Dr. Allison Bartlett, a pediatrician with the University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital, says school nurses are the public health system of schools.

“They are responsible for helping keep everyone safe in terms of symptom screening and testing programs and encouraging vaccination,” she said. “They are being pulled in so many directions and are so vital to the work that’s being done.”

She says what would help further to lighten the load is if more students got vaccinated. Elementary age students became eligible for the shot last week. If more students are vaccinated, fewer students will need to be quarantined and be tested, and school nurses will have more time to care for students.

“I view these testing components as a ‘nice to have’ add on, but they are definitely resource intense,” Bartlett said. “Making sure that first and foremost we’re focusing on promoting vaccination and masking and some contact tracing is definitely better spent time.”

Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.