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.
“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.”