COVID-19: Voices from the front lines — Tessa McIlraith

This story was published in the Winter 2021 issue of The Washington Nurse magazine.

Wa nurse mc Ilraith tessa

Tessa McIlraith, MS, BSN, RN
Skagit County, Wash.

COVID-19 has forced nurses to learn on the job to keep the most vulner­able among us safe and healthy during a pandemic. For Tessa McIlraith, lead district nurse for the Burlington-Edison School District, that couldn’t be more true.

Tessa oversees planning and nursing care within the 3,400-student district and leads train­ings for district health staff. Before the pandemic began, she was spending four days per week providing care to high school students and one day each week at an elemen­tary school — working closely with students with chronic condi­tions like diabetes and asthma, and tending to acute injuries from wood shop and gym class. Often­times, she provided a reprieve for students who were dealing with anxiety or other mental health issues who just needed a break from class.

In March, when the first cases of COVID-19 were being reported in Washington state, students in the district were still attending in-person classes. While the district works very collab­o­ra­tively with Skagit County Public Health for all commu­ni­cable diseases, Tessa says a large portion of her role became focused on gathering and dissem­i­nating up-to-date infor­ma­tion about the COVID-19 virus.

“This is a health crisis that’s created an education crisis.”
— Tessa McIlraith, MS, BSN, RN

Respi­ra­tory issues are always concerning in public school settings, and we make sure to touch base with the families of our kids who are partic­u­larly vulner­able to infec­tion,” she says. So, from the start, it really was a battle of infor­ma­tion and making sure we shared the most accurate infor­ma­tion with our schools and our families.”

Tessa, who formerly practiced as a periop­er­a­tive nurse at an ortho­pedic surgery center, began securing PPE, like face shields and surgical masks, for school staff members to use — but donated the district’s supply of N95 masks to a local hospital to help alleviate the PPE shortage for the health care workers who needed them most.

Inside schools, nurses closely monitored students’ coughs and fevers, and sent them home, if needed. Then, in early April, every­thing changed. Students were released for Spring Break — but never physi­cally returned to their class­rooms. To finish the 2019 – 2020 school year, students (and their parents) went back to school from inside their own homes.

Some kids are flour­ishing in this digital learning environ­ment, but any educa­tion gaps we had before the pandemic have widened,” Tessa says. This is a health crisis that’s created an educa­tion crisis.”

To help students adjust to virtual learning and ensure their success, Tessa is a member of one of the school district’s learning engage­ment teams. For students who aren’t showing up to their online classes or have several incom­plete assign­ments, Tessa will call them to simply ask how they are doing and what the school can do to better support them.

It’s not just about the grades; it’s about reinforcing connec­tion,” she says. When kids lose their connec­tion to their school, it further compounds their ability to learn.”

As of October, kinder­garten through second grade students, students with learning disabil­i­ties and those with educa­tion access barriers have returned to modified in-person learning for the 2020 – 2021 school year — but the majority of students remain learning from home. To help her manage her now-doubled workload and cope with an increased sense of pressure and respon­si­bility to keep students safe, Tessa says she leans on her fellow school nurses in the district and in School Nurse Organi­za­tion of Washington (SNOW) — where she serves as legisla­tive chair — for support.

Because we don’t work in the medical field and are often the only staff member in our school with a medical background, the most valuable thing school nurses have is our connec­tion with each other,” she says. We’re laying down the track as we’re chugging along, and it’s been my saving grace to know that I have their support.”

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