I am a school nurse who is on the front lines of COVID-19

  • Heidi DeSchepper, 39, was an elementary school nurse when the pandemic hit.
  • She said it was a fun job, but now it’s full of politics and less carefree.
  • Here’s DeSchepper’s story, told to writer Julie Halpert.

This narrated essay is based on a conversation with Heidi DeSchepper, a 39-year-old school nurse in St. Joseph, Missouri. It has been edited for length and clarity.

This story is part of “How the Pandemic Changed My Career,” an Insider series documenting the moves and moments that have shaped people’s careers over the past two years.

I always wanted to be a nurse.

I decided to go back to nursing school at 28, after working in a pathology lab at a hospital as a histology technician. As I had five children aged 7 and under at the time, I thought this would be one of the most stressful times of my life.

But that doesn’t compare to what I had to endure as a school nurse during COVID-19.

I worked as a school nurse in a primary school from fall 2015 to spring 2021

Then last fall, I got a new job as a high school nurse.

I like being a school nurse because I can work while my kids are in school and I have my summers off.

It was fun work. I treated bumps and bruises and injuries on the playground and cared for children who got sick. I also did hearing and vision screenings on all students.

But my job completely changed once COVID-19 hit

Everything I do every day now revolves around COVID-19.

When a child comes in with a routine illness or injury, my first thought should be: does this child potentially have COVID-19? Did they rub shoulders with anyone with that? Do their symptoms match this? Should I send them to be tested? Who were they sitting next to in class?

Some parents would yell at me if I told them their child had to be quarantined. Some said, “My child will not wear a mask.”

Sadly, this whole COVID-19 thing has become political

Some parents are anti-vaccine. The school I work at does not require vaccination against COVID-19 and I am not allowed to ask if students are vaccinated. I guess only 25-30% are vaccinated. I am vaccinated.

I don’t want to upset people. I want to be a nurturer and take care of people. On the other side of the coin, some parents are overly cautious and worried when their son or daughter is not quarantined when exposed.

We had to create a makeshift isolation room right next to my office

Every time a child had any symptoms throughout the day, I had to put them in this isolation room. I would have to call their parents to pick them up immediately.

And so I was expected to be in two places at once. I had to be in the isolation room if anyone was there, but I also had to run my clinic. I didn’t feel like I could be fully present or give my full care and attention to the students in either place.

A number of our families fall below the poverty line, so I was their only contact in the medical profession.

They didn’t have a doctor and they were asking about COVID-19 symptoms and what to do. I was always afraid of not saying the right thing, especially since CDC guidelines changed often. It’s very stressful.

Our nurse manager (who oversees all of the school nurses in my district) does a great job of keeping us all up to date with the latest information from the CDC. She often sends e-mails. She did her best to keep us updated, and we all had to take the CDC’s contact tracing course.

There is a registered nurse in every building in my district

We are very lucky to have this. There are a few buildings that have two nurses, depending on the size of the building.

I was alone in elementary school. We are two in high school. We have a few supply nurses (who are also RNs), but we are having difficulty finding and keeping replacements.

I went to nursing school because it’s a fun specialty and I love working with children. But it’s not so fun and carefree anymore.

During Thanksgiving 2020, I also had COVID-19

I guess it was from a student. I had to be isolated from my family and my husband had to cook all the holiday meals himself. He brought me a plate and I couldn’t taste or smell anything. My sense of smell and taste still haven’t returned to normal.

In March 2020, my 6-year-old child – my sixth child, born in 2012 – contracted COVID-19, and my 17-year-old child, who attends my school, was diagnosed on January 17 and spent three days in the USI. Luckily, they are both fine now.

Jhis pandemic is far from over

We see around three to five positive cases a day among a total of 1,500 students. At least two staff members benefit each week.

The numbers are dropping, but it’s still there.

It also made me realize that as a school nurse I am on the front lines of public health

I hope this has made others in education and elsewhere realize that we do more than just sit at our desks and hand out band-aids all day.

As frustrating as it can be sometimes, there is no job I would rather do. I like being in a school setting and I like being around children. They are very honest and will tell you exactly what is going on.

Sometimes kids tell me things they won’t even tell their mom, dad or close friends.

I love building this relationship of trust with them and I love being the person they want to come to.

You never know the effect you will have on the people you come into contact with. It is an honor and a privilege to be able to care for these children during the pandemic.

COVID-19 has taught me that we never know what tomorrow will bring

So it made me enjoy my time at home more with my husband and kids and also made me leave work more at work.

I used to worry a lot about some students and bring those worries home. I just want to enjoy my time with my family when I’m with them and enjoy my time with my students when I’m with them.

I can’t wait to get back to some kind of normalcy at school when COVID-19 is behind us

I want to get back to doing things like hearing and vision screenings and not have to be so worried and paranoid about every little thing – and just enjoy the kids more.

Even at home, whenever my children were sick, I worried. And even with my own son who was in the hospital, I wondered, Will it take my own family too?

I’m just ready not to have COVID-19 lurking around every corner.

My vision of nursing and nursing practice has definitely changed, that’s for sure. I definitely consider myself a more vital part of public health now, and I don’t think that will ever change. I feel more ready to face anything that comes my way.

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