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School Nurses: From Minor Pains to a Major Pandemic, They Care for the Whole District

School Nurses: From Minor Pains to a Major Pandemic, They Care for the Whole District

by Jenny Walker

It is hard to argue that school nurses became some of the unsung heroes of the pandemic as they monitored thousands of children when students shifted from virtual learning to face-to-face instruction. Despite dealing with daily temperature checks and mounds of COVID-related paperwork, school nurses handled it all in stride and worked hard to educate and inform concerned parents, faculty, staff and students. Whether they were navigating the constantly changing pandemic protocols or performing routine vision and hearing screenings, this year’s school nurses did not miss a beat in keeping children healthy.

Redwater ISD nurses Christie Raney, LVN, and Jennifer Robinson, RN, worked to find creative solutions to COVID-related struggles for their district. They sought funding from the K12 Project through the State of Texas that allowed Redwater ISD to provide free on-site COVID testing for students, faculty and staff. Redwater was the only district in Bowie County that received this grant.

“It really helped us keep kids in class, which was our main goal,” Robinson said. “Some students just were not doing well in a virtual learning environment, and being able to test students on-site cut down on our number of students who had to go into quarantine tenfold.”

Robinson went through training to administer the tests, and she said the on-site testing allowed her to quickly determine if a student had the virus. This helped her make the best decisions to keep students healthy and keep instruction moving forward. Because of this testing, the district went from having more than 20 students on one campus quarantined to having only two in the entire district. They have not had a student with a positive COVID test since February.

Even though students are back on campus, they are still dealing with some COVID-related health issues. Robinson said she worked to create an environment that helps students integrate back into regular school activities, including a sensory corner in Robinson’s office.

“Mental health has been a big deal for me this year,” Robinson said. “We have seen a lot of COVID-related anxiety coming out this year with our students, and it’s coming out in physical symptoms like headaches and nausea. The sensory corner in my office just allows them to have a quiet place to sit and reset. It really only takes about ten minutes before they are feeling better and can go back to class. This keeps them from having to go home and miss a whole day of school. Sometimes they just need that little bit of a mental break.”

Although school nurses had to adjust to unusual circumstances this year, the high level of care they provide their students is nothing out of the ordinary. On top of COVID, Robinson said she and Raney saw 600 visits per campus each semester for non-COVID-related health issues and did 1,200 initial health screenings for vision, hearing and spinal issues. The district has just over 1,000 students.

In addition to screenings and treating students’ health issues,  nurses also work on a wide variety of initiatives that proactively promote wellness on their campuses. They coordinate vaccination clinics for the flu shot and other vaccines students might need and teach CPR classes to faculty and students. Along with health aide Mary Jackson, they also work to help care for students in their district with chronic illnesses like diabetes.

“Ms. Jackson is amazing, and she has been running the KIDS Camp for diabetic children for more than 20 years,” Raney said. “We are so blessed to have her on our team at Redwater. She does such a great job educating our diabetic students—even the young ones—about caring for themselves. She doesn’t just tell them what to do. She makes sure she teaches them what numbers are good and what are bad and how to give their own shots—skills they will use for the rest of their lives.”

Raney, who has worked for the district for almost a decade, also provides information about puberty through “The Talk” program designed to educate fifth-grade students on their changing bodies. In addition, she puts together cosmetic bags for girls filled with a day’s worth of feminine supplies that she keeps on hand for young ladies who encounter emergencies during the school day.

They handle head lice checks when necessary and counsel students on nutrition and healthy habits. They also organize spreadsheets for teachers taking students on field trips that include any student allergies or medical needs so that teachers readily have the information they need while traveling off-campus.

They can do so much, but there is one thing they cannot do—diagnose illness.

“Sometimes parents will meet us at campus at 7:15 a.m. and they want us to diagnose their child’s illness,” Raney said. “But it’s just like if Jennifer and I were on a floor of a hospital. We can only offer our best nursing advice or explain what our best policy is for the school. We always want them to seek the advice of their child’s doctor for a diagnosis.”

But they do not want that to keep parents from reaching out. Raney said the most important work they do to support students at school is to build relationships with families.

“We build a personal relationship with a lot of the parents,” Raney said. “When there are any big changes in their life, we don’t have to know the details, but it is helpful for us to know that something has changed.”

She said this communication is key to helping them best care for students during the day.

“It helps us know that’s the reason they’re coming to the office to lay down for 10 or 15 minutes,” Raney said. “Maybe they aren’t really sick, necessarily. Sometimes they just need that hug or that little bit of affection. We can understand where it’s coming from when parents communicate family changes with us.”

Robinson added that building relationships with parents allows school nurses to work as part of a team to help parents and doctors address physical issues.

“Communication is key,” she said. “It allows us to fill in the gaps. An example might be if a child is switching ADHD prescriptions. We might not know about the change if they take their medicine at home, but we can be watching for side effects that parents might not see. We have students for a large part of the day, and we might be able to give some insight that parents can share with their doctors.”

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Although Robinson and Raney work hard to build strong relationships with the parents, they understand the importance of earning the students’ trust.

“During lunch, we try to check in with students,” Robinson said. “We make sure that the kids feel seen. We praise them for the baseball games or the work they’re doing – the little things. That way, when they have bigger problems, they can come to us and know that they are going to be seen and heard. When we have their trust and they tell us about things they might need help with, we know how to move forward and get others involved like a parent, administrator or a counselor if that is necessary.”

Robinson said that when they do have to bring in others to best care for students, they are fortunate to have such a supportive environment that promotes a team effort.

“We all work together to provide the best care for the students,” Robinson said. “The teachers, administrators, and counselors keep us informed, and we often collaborate to make sure we are caring for students the best way we can. We are all working together to provide a safe space for children.”

This team approach to health has expanded to not only care for students, but faculty and staff as well. Thanks to a Healthy Habits program that Raney and Robinson planned last year, Redwater employees also benefited from the school nurses.

“We lost 200 pounds together as a district,” Robinson said. “Our staff earned points for water intake, steps, and even for attending mindfulness classes. Their health is just as important as the students.”

The nurses said they provide blood pressure checks for faculty and staff,  and they often send out articles that help provide information to teachers about different vitamins or other health-related topics they think might be helpful to faculty and staff members.

“We all just take care of each other,” Robinson said.

About the Author: Texarkana native Jenny Walker has worked in education for almost 20 years, but her favorite and most important job has been to serve as mom to Ryan Kate and Owen.  

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